The Canadian Teacher – Meet Larry Verstraete Interview

Recently fellow author Margriet Ruurs interviewed me for the Can Write column of the Canadian Teacher magazine.  Each issue of the magazine features a different Canadian children’s book author or illustrator, and the questions posed delve into the stories behind their creations. 

Margriet’s full interview is posted below.  For more interviews of authors and illustrators, check the Canadian Teacher website.  You can find more about Margriet Ruurs and her books at margrietruurs.com

Can Write – Meet Larry Verstraete

Books about dinosaurs, innovations and technologies. Titles like At The Edge and Life and Death. Who is Canadian author Larry Verstraete and how does he write such interesting, award-winning books?

Margriet: Your topics and titles really appeal to kids. They are listed in the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books. As a kid, did you love reading? And writing?

Larry: Books were among my best friends when I was growing up—novels, short stories, bios, non-fiction (science and history, especially). My brother and I had shared custody of stacks of comic books. We both enjoyed the sarcastic humour of MAD magazine. As for writing, I don’t recall willingly lifting a pen to draft a story on my own. The only writing I did was for school assignments, and those were returned with generous amounts of red ink. A career as a writer was not on my radar back then.

Margriet: You had a career as a teacher. How did writing become a new career?

Larry: Call it a fluke. After a long teaching day, I stopped for a haircut on the way home. The place was busy and while I waited for my turn, I thumbed through a magazine. One page stood out—an ad for a correspondence writing course titled “We’re looking for people to write books for children.”

To this day, I don’t know why I was so intrigued by the ad. Perhaps because I had been such an enthusiastic reader my whole life. Perhaps because I taught children and had two young kids of my own. Perhaps because I love the bond between readers who share books and wanted to create something that would have the same results.

I suspect it was all of these. I decided to give it a go, and, as they say, the rest is history. While I worked on course assignments, I discovered a story about a freak accident that led to a breakthrough in science. I wrote the story for the course but was so hooked on the topic that I continued to research and write other stories like it as I worked through the rest of the assignments. By the end of the course, I had a collection of stories around that theme.

The manuscript eventually found a home with Scholastic Canada and was published as The Serendipity Effect. By then I was bitten by the writing bug, and 30 years later I am still at it.

Margriet: Do you have a preference for writing fiction or non- fiction?

Larry: When it comes to non-fiction, I see myself as a storyteller and not so much as a writer of facts. Telling a true story comes with constraints, but I know the outcome before I start and the events that lead up to it, so, in a sense, I have an outline before I start. With fiction, creation is in my hands which is refreshing but also daunting because there are so many possibilities in play.

I enjoy both. Fiction is a nice break from non-fiction and vice versa.

Margriet: How does your writing process work?

Larry: I pull ideas from many places. I keep a “futures box.” When I find an article, clipping or something that piques my interest, I cut it out or download, print it, and throw it in the box. Every few months, I rummage through the collection. By then, I’ve forgotten what’s in there so it’s a bit like opening a gift. I’m always amazed at how many ideas surface.

Some of the best ideas for new books come while I am writing something else. For instance, while I was writing Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science, I thought I would include a story about the Hindenburg and use it as an example of how science revealed how and why the fire started. I never used the story in Case Files, but when I read about Werner Franz, the cabin boy aboard the Hindenburg, and his narrow escape, I knew right away that I wanted to tell his story. Eventually, I did. Surviving the Hindenburg is the result.

For non-fiction, once I have an idea, I dive into research. I try to find everything that is connected to the topic. If I can’t come up with a fresh take on the subject, I move on to something else. If the subject looks viable, I write a few pages to develop the voice and approach I’d like to use. From there, I create a proposal complete with an outline and a few samples.

Margriet: Hindenburg! Dinosaurs! Survival stories! Death defying escapes! Is your “real” life as exciting as your books?

Larry: Not at all. Like most people, I’ve had a few cliff-hanging moments of my own, but nothing the calibre of the subjects I research and write about. As a kid, I was fascinated by stories of heroes and true adventure, so I am probably fulfilling some inner quest for excitement by writing about others who live on the edge.

Margriet: How did you first get published?

Larry: When I wrote The Serendipity Effect, my first book, I did not have a clue how to find a publisher. I sent the entire manuscript to a publisher only to wait six months to have it returned with a note saying “thanks, but no thanks.” After that, I changed my approach. Instead of shipping off the entire manuscript, I now develop a proposal, add a few sample chapters, and send it off to several publishers at the same time. One was Scholastic Canada. Lucky for me, they were interested.
I’ve been published by other publishers since then. It helps to have a list of published books to back up your credentials, but that’s only one of the factors involved. For non-fiction, you are trying to sell an idea or concept. You need to prove to publishers that you have something original and current to offer. Whether or not you’ve been published before doesn’t matter if you don’t have something intriguing to bring to the bargaining table. For fiction, regardless of your previous works, you still need to prove that the story you’ve written is good enough for publication.

Having an established relationship with an editor or publishing house helps, though. In a sense, you are a known quantity to them. I’ve had a couple of projects drop into my lap because someone in a publishing house thought I would be a match for an in-house project.

Margriet: What do you do during school visits?

Larry: One of my goals when visiting classrooms is to leave students as excited about writing and reading as I am. I share my backstory and bring props, gadgets, posters, illustrations and other gear to make my session as interactive as possible. I tell stories, read passages, and use media to take students behind the scenes of writing and publishing so they can see how ideas eventually become the books they read.

Margriet: What are you working on now?

Larry: My last novel (Coop the Great) was a fictional story about a dachshund who is on a quest to find meaning in his life. The dog tells the story, and his voice was so fresh and vivid to me, that I had trouble leaving it behind. At this point, I am chipping away at a middle-grade novel that is very different from Coop, and I am happy to say that the pieces are beginning to come together.

 

I Love to Read Month 2020

During “I Love to Read” month, or one of its variations around the globe, books are celebrated in schools, libraries and homes.  It’s a time when readers of all ages are encouraged to hunker down with books of every genre and variety.

A few years ago, I wrote those words in a post similar to this.  For me, not much has changed.  Reading – and raising readers – is at the core of who I am and what I do.  I write for young people to engage them and broaden their understandings, hoping that they’ll keep turning pages of the books I write. 

As I wrote in that first post, I can recall clearly the first time a book totally transported me to another time and place. I was in grade 4.  The teacher – wise in the ways of keeping a restless group of children attentive – read a mystery novel to the class. I don’t recall the title or the author, but I remember the plot – a thrilling whodunit about a boy detective who solved a kidnap-murder case.  I hung on to every word and groaned with the rest of the class when the teacher closed the book at the end of each chapter.  Because of that experience, the seeds of story magic took root. Whenever I write, I hope to replicate that effect.

When I became a middle grade teacher – then later a parent – I followed my grade 4 teacher’s lead. I read to my students and my own children daily. From a literacy-development point of view, I knew it was the correct thing to do.  Numerous research studies espouse the benefits of reading aloud to youngsters, even to those of high school age, but – I can admit it now – boosting reading comprehension was never my primary motive. I simply wanted for my students and children, the same experience I had myself in grade 4 – the glorious out-of-body feeling of being one with a community of others, all lost together in a gripping story that defied time and place.

I read aloud from a diverse menu. The Giver by Lois Lowry for its perspectives on society gone astray…Jesper by Carol Matas for its portrayal of moral dilemmas in wartime Europe… Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, for a heart-searing Southern story about a boy and his two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann…Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel so we could follow Shade, a silverwing bat, on his epic journey towards maturity…The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes for its depiction of a harsh and uncertain future…

Not every offering was a heavyweight.  Each year, with the approach of the holiday season, I carved time out of the busy day to read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. We chuckled when sheep and shepherds ran amuck at the annual community production.  We high-fived one another later when it was averted.

Books have always played an important role in my life.  I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.  But what about you?  What books transformed you?  How?  Why? 

I Love to Read Month is a good time to reflect on the books that changed us.  It’s also a great time to pick up a new one, curl up in a comfortable place, and dip into another book that, with any luck, will change us again.

 

Coop the Great Five Ways

With Coop the Great on the MYRCA (Manitoba Young Readers Choice Awards) shortlist, teachers and librarians  have found clever ways to connect readers to my down-and-out dachshund who eventually rises to greatness.  Here are four examples:

Sketchbook – Grosvenor School, Winnipeg, Grade 3, Ms Kristin Robbins class

Ms Robbins, my granddaughter Abby’s teacher, read Coop the Great aloud to the class, As she read each chapter, students drew in coil-bound sketchbooks she had provided. Each page had been divided into four boxes, and each box contained a sketch that represented a stand-out event, character or scene from that chapter. When I visited the class in December, students were eager to show me their sketches and tell me about their favourite moments from the book.

Coop models – Hastings School, Winnipeg, Grade 5/6, Ms Tracey Shields class

After Ms Shields read Coop the Great to the class, students crafted models of Coop, along with signs posting a message or theme from the story. Colleen Fowler, the school librarian, posted a photo of the models on Twitter to enter MYRCA’s win-an-author-visit contest in November.  When I saw the figures, I just knew I had to meet the artists who’d created them. Their signs said so much about what they’d taken from the story.

Fleece Dog Toys – Windsor Park Collegiate Library Learning Commons, Winnipeg

After reading Coop the Great and Missing Mike by Shari Green, both MYRCA nominated books, students met to chat about their reads and make make dog toys with fleece scraps from the clothing lab.

Winnipeg Humane Society – Windsor School, Winnipeg, grade 7/8

This message appeared on Twitter in December. “Today our MYRCA Club went to the WPG Humane Society.  One of the nominees, Coop the Great, is about a rescue animal. This was a great opportunity for us to make real world connections to the novel. Thank you so much to our guide, and to the animals we were able to meet.” Later, students followed the lead of the Windsor Library Learning Commons to create toys for the animals at the Humane Society.

Darcy’s Animal Rescue – Kristin Zaparniuk, Teacher, Louis Riel School Division, Winnipeg 

After reading the book, Kristin who volunteers at Darcy’s Animal Rescue Centre, a shelter founded by D’Arcy Johnston, snapped photos of Coop the Great in various settings around D’Arcy’s ARC and posted them on Twitter.   I had visited the shelter while writing the book, and used it as a model for Derby Animal Shelter, the fictional shelter in the book.  D’Arcy Johnston and canine mascot, Darnold also helped to launch the book so Kristin’s Twitter message had more than one special meaning for me. 

Darnold with founder D’Arcy Johnston at the McNally Robinson Launch of Coop the Great

Dear Larry

I received an envelope thick with cards. letters and notes from students I had recently visited during THIN AIR week. This was not the first time – and hopefully not the last – that such a package has landed in my hands after visiting a school.

As usual, I waited until I had time to digest the contents before opening it.  As usual, I read each entry, sometimes with a smile, often with a chuckle.  And as usual, I packed everything back into the envelope when I finished so that I could read and savour them again another day. 

I though you might enjoy viewing a few samples from two such bundles.  One envelope came from a grade 1 class where I had talked about books and writing, but also took students on a journey 60 million years into the past, to the time when the Western Interior Seaway split the continent in two and Bruce, the mighty mosasaur, ruled the sea.  The other envelope came from a grade 4/5 class who had just finished reading Coop the Great and had dozens of questions for me.  I don’t think you’ll have any problem distinguishing between the two.

I love your book Coop the Great.  I found it funny when you were talking about the little dachshund pup that you met in the backpack. Because I have a chocolate lab but he’s still a puppy. He’s 9 months old. When he was very tiny and we didn’t want to leave him in the kennel, we took him to the hockey area with us and stuffed him in a little bag. Of course, you’re not allowed dogs.  But it was so cute when people came so we would hide him under a blanket. So funny!

I think Coop the Great is one of my favourite books now. I like how you added some sad parts, some happy parts and some funny parts. I think my favourite character in Coop the Great is Emma. I like the way she is almost always happy and cheerful!

Why did you pick dogs and not cats like there are so many other things to choose from?  I learned that to write it’s harder than it sounds or looks. Coop the Great is my favourite that I have ever heard.

The book Coop the Great was an awesome book. I did not like how Zach was hitting the dog and being mean. It was sad how Rick was being mean to the kids and the mom, but I do like everything else in the book.  The book made me feel happy and sad.

 

Can I ask you a question?  Can you come visit us again so then maybe you can read us some more Coop the Great.  By the way my questions are not over yet. I only have a few!! My first question is how hard was it for you to create Coop’s name?  My second question is CAN YOU COME VISIT US!

 

 

 

Writing from the Kid Inside

Not long ago, I visited a number of schools in Winnipeg as one of the authors involved in the school program side of THIN AIR, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.  I love visiting schools, in part because I had been a teacher for so long and it feels like I am a prodigal son returning home.  But I also love visiting schools because students provide me with a healthy dose of reality. Students are my target audience when I write.  What they say, how they feel about my books, what questions they ask – all of these things matter.

For THIN AIR, I had received an itinerary in advance, but on the first afternoon of my 3-day involvement, there was a slight hitch.  Instead of the grade 1 & 2 classes listed on my itinerary, two grade 6 classes piled into the school library instead. 

One of the teachers pulled me aside to explain. “I’ve been reading Coop the Great to my class. We haven’t finished, but the kids are so excited. When we heard you were coming, we made a deal with the grade 1 & 2 teachers.  We’re here instead.  I hope you don’t mind.”

Mind? Of course, I didn’t, not at all.  To have readers so excited about something I’ve written is the best of all compliments.  For the next hour, the students asked many questions.  Most were about the characters and the story. Why is Coop so sour? Why is Lucinda so mean?  What happened to Zach to make him so angry?  Other questions probed into the choices I had made as a writer. Why did you name the dog Coop?  Why a dachshund and not another breed?  Did you ever have a dog like Coop?

The hour passed quickly.  The students had other questions, but we ran out of time.  I drove home, a little stunned and still high on the experience. Why did this story resonate with these kids? Why did they identify so closely with Coop and the other characters? As a writer, what ingredients had I whipped together to make this possible? 

Probably there are dozens of factors, but for me one stands out. Even though my main character was Coop, a lowly, older dog struggling to find his purpose, kids saw reflections of themselves in his story. They knew what it was like to be bullied like Coop, to struggle and sometimes fail, and to be riddled with doubt, insecurities and larger-than-life questions that didn’t seem to have answers.

When I wrote Coop the Great, It was from that kid place. I think all successful writers of youth material do this. They remember as vividly as yesterday what it was like to be a kid.  They remember the fears, confusion and angst of growing up. Whatever their genres, they write from that place. They draw on childhood emotions and experiences that are universal and touch all kids no matter when or where they live. 

THIN AIR is Alive and Well

Last week, I was one of many authors involved in the school side of THIN AIR, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.  For two days, I barreled down Winnipeg roads and dipped into schools like Oak Bluff Community School, John de Graff and John Pritchard to visit students from K to Grade 6.  On the third day, I stood stage center at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People to face a crowd of enthusiastic middle graders from Munroe Junior High and Oakenwald School.

For me, it was three days of shared moments. At each stop, we talked about books – mine mostly, but sometimes others. We talked about stories and why we love them.  We talked about reading books and what it takes to write them. I read passages from my books, and students asked questions. Many questions. 

Much of my time with middle years students centered around Coop the Great. Several teachers or librarians were in the middle of reading the book to their classes, and one school had embarked on a Coop the Great novel study. Because Coop the Great is one of the nominated titles on the Sundog list for this years’ MYRCA (Manitoba Young Readers Choice Awards), it was also a way to introduce students to the program and get them started.

I was blown away by the students’ enthusiasm and interest.  They seem to enjoy reading Coop the Great as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Everywhere, they had questions.  Where did you get the idea for the book?  Did you ever have a dog like Coop?  How long did it take you to write Coop? Are you going to write another Coop book? Will Coop be made into a movie? (I wish).

A number of questions explored delicate themes that run through the book. Why did you include Lucinda (the cat) and why is she so mean? (bullying).  Why did you make Rick (the father) the unlikeable character he is? (abuse). Why did you include the 9-11 story of Salty and Omar? (I steered around answering that one because the reason only becomes apparent later in the book).

At the end of my THIN AIR experience, I had a much broader appreciation of what the school side of the festival brings to readers and writers.  Charlene Diehl, the director of THIN AIR, expressed it better than I ever could in the message she wrote for the program guide.

What happens at THIN AIR?  The writers we gathered this year will read to us, think with us, provoke us to examine our assumptions, and make us laugh (or cry) in moments of shared humanity.

Thanks for inviting me to THIN AIR, Charlene.  Thanks Chelsey Young, Admin Coordinator, for taking care of the fine details.  Thanks teachers and librarians who stirred up student interest.  Finally, thanks to all the youngsters who came armed with insights, curiosity and enthusiasm. You are the reason I continue to write.

With students from Oakenwald School after the stage event at MTYP

 

 

The Futures Box

Many writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction, have ways of nurturing inspiration. Some jot notes and keep an “idea” book set aside for the purpose.  Others use post-its or index cards. Those who are bent on technology record their brainstorms on smartphones and computers.  Some use Flipboard or Pinterest. I use a ‘futures’ box. Initially, this was just a very large box.  Now, it’s a deep drawer devoted to the purpose, but the principle is the same.

Here’s how my system works. Every time I read something in a newspaper or magazine that interests me, I cut out the item. If the article is in a book or a borrowed magazine, I photocopy it.  If it comes from television, radio, or other audio-video source I can usually find the same thing online so I print it. If a gem of an idea, a particularly clever phrase, or something striking pops into my head, I jot a note to myself.  On the top of each item, I write the date and the source.  Then I throw it into the cardboard box and forget about it.

I let the box fill for two or three months – sometimes longer. When I have the time and inclination, I dump the box and sift through the contents. By now, I’ve forgotten what’s in there so it’s a little like opening a gift.  Each item hold surprises. Often entire themes emerge. 

I learn a lot about myself when I do this.  Once, for example, I discovered that I had at least 10 clippings about people who had done valiant things when really, they could have just as easily stepped aside.  I didn’t realize that this was a subject of interest for me.  The end result was At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times, a book about people and the moral dilemmas they faced in times of crisis.

Who knows what themes emerge?

It’s not just non-fiction themes that emerge from the box.  An item about a recently discovered plane that had gone missing 50 years ago struck a nerve, and eventually became an important element in Missing in Paradise. A clever advertising jingle has become the backbone for a picture book that is simmering on the back-burner.  And then there’s an article about a meteorite the size of a basketball that fired through a Kentucky roof, bounced off a coffee table and ricocheted off a woman sleeping on a couch. Now how can I not write about that?

 

Visiting the Anne Frank House

The Anne Frank House is at 263 Prinsengrachton along this street that runs parallel to the canal.

A few months ago, in preparation for a trip to Amsterdam and a planned visit to the Anne Frank House, I read Anne’s The Diary of a Young Girl.  I blogged about my reactions to the book then.  I noted too, that my wife, Jo, and I had tried to visit the Anne Frank House on a previous visit to Amsterdam. We had not expected block-long line-ups to get in, and rather than spend the better part of a day in line, we opted to visit one the city’s many museums instead. 

This time, we secured tickets online well ahead of our visit.  We also purchased tickets to an optional 30-minute information session given prior to the start of the tour.

Sarah’s timeline that compares events in WW II to the Frank family’s reactions to oppression

Sarah, our presenter, used a timeline to show key points about the rise of Nazism in Germany, the factors that contributed to antisemitism, and the plight of Jews, gays, people of color, and others who were oppressed during Hitler’s time in power. Sarah used the same timeline to show how the Frank family responded to these conditions. She traced their move from Germany to Amsterdam when oppression deepened.  She traced their move from the house in Amsterdam where they first lived, to the house at 263 Prinsengrachton where they sought refuge after the German occupation of the Netherlands in 1942.

Later, we were given audio devices for the tour of the house.  Cameras were banned and while that was initially a disappointment, it kept crowds moving and focused.  We wound through various levels of the house, up steep stairs, through the passageway hidden by a bookcase that led to the secret annex that housed 9 people for 2 years, including 4 members of the Frank family.

A model of the house as it was in World War II. The secret annex is at the upper right at the back of the structure.

At every turn, excerpts from Anne’s diary were on display. Voices of actors in the audio guide – or in some cases, the voices of actual survivors – added another layer of information and authenticity to the experience.  Photographs of the rooms’ interiors as they were used during the two-year period were mounted on walls.  Display cases featured books, papers and implements used by the Franks and others. 

Moving through the house, I was reminded of many passages I had read in the book. What Anne expressed in words became hauntingly real. The rooms were small.  The staircases were narrow and tight.  The blinds were drawn, mimicking the way they needed to be in order to prevent light from escaping and revealing the hiding place to Nazis patrolling the streets. The bathroom, which could only be used in the evenings when workers in the floors below were gone, was small and sparsely furnished. With every creak of the floorboards, I felt some of the same fears of detection that Anne had expressed in her diary.   

One of Anne’s diaries

Perhaps the most moving segment of the tour was saved to the end.  In a meeting space, a video played on a continuous loop. Dignitaries and celebrities from Nelson Mandela to Stephen Spielberg, as well as ordinary visitors like ourselves spoke about the impact of Anne Frank’s words.

Also featured were friends and acquaintances from Anne’s life, many of them survivors themselves.  Among others, we heard from Hanneli Elizabeth Pick-Goslar, who attended Sixth Public Montessori School with Anne in Amsterdam, and Miep Gies who hid the diaries until they could be returned to Otto Frank, the only member of the Frank family to survive.

The new exterior of the Anne Frank House & Foundation

The exterior of the Anne Frank complex looks very different than when we saw it on our first visit to Amsterdam. The building next to the original house is now part of the Anne Frank Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to education and the eradication of racism, bigotry and prejudice in all its forms.  The new wing houses an extensive library, meeting rooms, and a cafeteria.

From our tour and the session before it, I learned much about the conditions leading up to the war that I didn’t know before. I didn’t know, for example, that Germany bore the weight of retribution after World War I, or how those escalating payments sent the German economy into a tailspin.  I learned more about how Hitler seized the moment to blame the Jews for the country’s economic woes.  He preached a message of false hope to desperate Germans that essentially said, elect me, rid the world of Jews, gays, gypsies and others on the fringes of society, and things will improve.

So much of what happened before and during World War II sounded eerily familiar. The rise of white supremacy. Leaders promising better futures by stoking fear and pointing blame at pockets of society. Oppressed people on the run, seeking refuge in new countries, but blocked at every turn. 

Isn’t this much the same today as then?

 

Vertical, Horizontal and Other Writing Habits

Early in my writing career, I discovered Perkins. Life was complicated then. I was a full-time teacher with a young family and hardly a minute to spare. To add writing to the mix meant that I had to squeeze an extra hour or two from an already crowded day, so I started getting up earlier than normal, well before the rest of the family. 

Each day for the first week of my new routine, I woke up at 5:30, brewed a pot of coffee, then slipped into an empty room that I had converted into a makeshift work space. The house was quiet, the air still, and there were many distractions that seemed more compelling than writing. For an hour and a half, I stared bleary-eyed at the computer screen, stalled before even starting.

Wherever I go, my day pretty much begins this way

For a change of venue one morning, I headed to a nearby Perkins restaurant. There the tables were large, the coffee hot and plentiful, and the restaurant was mostly deserted, save for five grizzly men, all retired I assumed, who had gathered to debate politics and life’s sad state. I chose a table near a window far from them, and was soon lost in a caffeine-fueled world of my own.  With the comforting hum of voices in the background and with few distractions to impede my progress, I made headway for the first time.

Since then, I’ve started my mornings in much the same way. The setting changes, but the pattern doesn’t.  Seven days a week, even on vacations, I walk, bike or drive to the first of my daily writing stations – a cozy cafe or inviting restaurant. 

My routine isn’t for everyone, but most productive writers had some habit or other than jump-starts the process or keeps the pages flowing.  For example, American poet Sylvia Plath started her writing day early, up at 4 a.m. and writing feverishly until her children demanded attention. John O’Hara, on the other hand, wrote between midnight and 7 a.m. and then crawled into bed for the rest of the day.

For others, it was water that beckoned the muse. Benjamin Franklin liked to write while immersed in the bathtub. So did Ann Landers, the famous columnist, Edmond Rostand, the French playwright, and Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. I am not sure how they kept their pages dry, but for them it worked.

Truman Capote wrote best in motel rooms and called himself ‘a horizontal writer’. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote lying down, too. Not so for Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway who all wrote standing up.

Virginia Wolfe wrote in a converted basement billiards room, surrounded by old files and stacks of books. J.K.Rowling famously wrote large portions of Harry Potter aboard a train, soothed by clattering wheels and swaying cars. Stephen King, one of the most prolific of writers, works at the same desk every morning, surrounded by familiar writing tools, keeping butt in the chair until he reaches his target of 10 pages.

On the hunt for coffee in Venice, Italy. No matter where I am, I try to find a quiet cafe or coffee shop to begin my writing day.

It seems to me that one secret to a successful writing career is not that we all have the same habit, but that we have habits of some kind that work for us – a place, a time, a favourite pen, a comfortable chair. Habit can induce consistency, offset writer’s block and lead to productivity, be it a paragraph a day or Stephen’s King’s enviable 10 pages.

What’s your writing habit?

 

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Kids are naturally curious and I get this question a lot when I visit schools and libraries.  Usually, I fumble through the answer by giving examples:


Case Files: 40 Murders & Mysteries Solved by Science

A newspaper article in a weekend edition explained how a forensic study of a single strand of Beethoven’s hair provided insights into the cause of the composer’s mysterious death.   What other cases from the past has modern science solved? I wondered.

 

 


Survivors: True Death-Defying Escapes

Years ago, my wife, two young children & I wandered off a mountain trail and spent several panic-filled hours trying to find our way back.  We succeeded but the experience led to questions:  How do others escape life-threatening experiences? What do they do to survive?

 

 


At the Edge: True Death-Defying Escapes

In 2006, Andrew Brash, a Calgary teacher, came to town to talk about his Mount Everest climb, In his presentation, Brash described his team’s rescue of Lincoln Hall, an Australian climber given up for dead by others in Everest’s Death Zone.  To rescue Hall, an act that Brash felt was the morally correct choice, he had to abandon his own climb.   In Brash’s story, I found a theme: With the clock ticking, when faced with death or loss, what choices do you have?  What action would you take?

 


Surviving the Hindenburg

I was looking for a story about a fire to include in Case Files.  The Hindenburg’s tragic end came to mind, but the science behind the fire didn’t fit the theme of the book.  The story of Werner Franz’s remarkable escape stuck, though. I had to know more and his  story became another book.

 


Coop the Great

I had been thinking about writing a non-fiction book about dogs, but the plan changed when I spotted a dachshund and his owner on a hike up a steep mountain.  It seemed like a monumental challenge for such a small dog.  All the way, I thought about the dog and wondered how he was coping.  That encounter gave birth to a story idea of a fictional dachshund who faces his own challenges and rises above them.

 

Usually, after a few examples, my young audience gets the drift of my answer: Ideas are everywhere.  You just have to be open to finding them. Be curious.  Ask questions.

It’s a pretty simple answer.  But really, what is the source of inspiration?  Is there a way to jump start the creative process?   Why do some people have a surplus of ideas while others have difficulty coming up with one?

In his web article, Where Do Ideas Come From? Dustin Wax describes two schools of thought about where ideas originate.  He calls one the “artist as antenna’.  Here ideas free float waiting for someone to pick them up, the same way a radio antenna picks up signals when tuned to the proper frequency. 

The second school of thought maintains that ideas are the product of hard work and concentration.  For writers, it means this:  Throw words on a page, think long and hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, and write, write and behold, ideas will surface.

On a hike down Central Trail in Riding Mountain National Park, I discovered these concrete structures. They were all that remained of a POW camp that once stood on the site. Even though I didn’t know it then, the POW camp would play an essential role in a later novel – Missing in Paradise. Ideas are everywhere.

Looking back at my own experiences, I can see both of these schools of thought at work. Simple as it might seem, the answer I give my young audiences is probably an apt one.  Ideas come to those who are prepared to find them, to those who are curious, who pay attention, and keep plugging away even during dry spells when it seems hopeless. 

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

Follow Follow Follow Email
Secured By miniOrange