No Ordinary Stone

This story intrigued me for a number of reasons. While I was writing Lost Treasures: True Stories of Discovery, it arrived much like treasure sometimes does as an unexpected find, hidden but always there waiting to be found. At the time, the story was new to me. The treasure wasn’t, though. It had been viewed by thousands daily in the The Louvre long before I was born.

The story was just quirky enough to be interesting, just strange enough to engage readers. Or so I hoped.


The Louvre – Image by Cuong DUONG Viet from Pixabay

Two men – one a farmer, the other a French naval officer – found the statue. Now they were locked in a battle for possession. Who would own it and what was its real worth?

Every day thousands of visitors swarm the Louvre, the largest museum in Paris. Many of them come to gaze at a statue of a woman. The statue is in three pieces. Its arms are missing. It is scratched and chipped. It is one of the world’s great treasures.

The statue is famous, yet few know the story of how, had it not been for two men – one a simple farmer, the other a sophisticated French officer – the statue might never have made it to the Louvre. For that story, we need to turn to April 8, 1820 and visit the island of Milos in the Mediterranean to stand in the rubble of an ancient Greek theatre thousands of years old.

The island of Milos (Pixabay)

***

Yorgos, a farmer, tugged on the stones along the crumbling old wall. Some were loose and just the right size for the structure Yorgos was building at his home a short distance away. Others were too large or irregularly-shaped to be of much use. Yorgos tossed these aside.

In the ruins, smothered with dirt, Yorgos spotted a promising piece. He dug around it, tearing it loose, dragging it into the open to examine it carefully. The piece was larger than he first thought. Oddly shaped, too, and smoothly polished.

A statue. Beautiful, perhaps, but useless to the farmer.

***

Twenty paces away, 23 year-old Olivier Voutier toiled in the dirt. The French naval officer’s ship was stationed in the harbour, leaving him with little to do. The day was a fine one, though, to indulge in one of his passions – archaeology. Voutier had heard that there were ruins on the island of Milos, and that on this very spot there had once been an ancient Greek theatre. Perhaps, with a bit of digging, he’d fine something special.

Voutier convinced two sailors to accompany him. Armed with picks and shovels, they chipped at the ruins, dismantling walls and foundations, tearing apart the ruins one stone at a time. In short order, they had unearthed a number of valuable items – a carved foot and two broken statues among others.

From the corner of his eye, Voutier spotted another man nearby. A local farmer, it appeared. Like them, the man had been digging, but now he had stopped and was standing motionless, staring at something he had unearthed. Curious, Voutier wandered over.

***

Yorgos stared at the carved block for some time. It was a delicate piece and even the uneducated farmer could tell that it was beautiful. But it was of no value to him. It was too large, heavy and lopsided. Best he should leave it.

Yorgos shovelled dirt over the stone, then stopped when Voutier came near. Voutier stooped low, momentarily entranced. What was this?  A marble statue?  A piece of one, at least. Lying on its side. Partly buried.

Site of the discovery

Dig some more, Voutier implored. He offered Yorgos money and the farmer readily agreed, dreams of new-found wealth now taking hold. Slowly, with more digging, a statue rose from the dirt. It was the nude upper half of a woman. The statue’s torso was chipped and scraped, its nose broken and arms missing, the carved surface stained from centuries in the dirt.

Even though it was damaged, Voutier sensed that there was something extraordinary about the statue. Its features were delicate and graceful, the lines simple but elegant. Clearly the statue was ancient and the work of a skilled artisan.

But where was the rest of the statue?  There had to be more. A base, at the very least.

Voutier offered the farmer more money. Yorgos dug, flinging dirt and rubble aside with even greater zeal. A second piece emerged, and then with a bit more searching, a third one, smaller than the other two.

The three pieces fit together like a puzzle, and the two men set about reconstructing the statue. They piled up the pieces – a base at the bottom, the delicately carved torso on top, and the third smaller piece in between, acting as a sort of wedge keeping the whole thing balanced. They stepped back to take a look, the simple farmer and the sophisticated naval officer did. The statue was larger than life-size, majestic and breath-taking.

anonymous person making photo in museum
Replica of the statue located on Milos
Photo by Sara del Valle on Pexels.com

The statue rightly belonged to Yorgos. After all, he had been the first to find it. But clearly, Yorgos didn’t want the statue. He wanted money instead, and Voutier knew that for the right price the statue could be bought. He scurried away to find a government official on the island. The statue must be claimed for France, he decided, and only a representative of the French government could do that. Watch the statue, he told Yorgos. I’ll be back.

While Voutier was away, Yorgos dug some more. He found a marble hand holding an apple, a badly mutilated piece of an arm, and two pillars, each with a carved head on top. By the time, Voutier arrived with the government official, Yorgos had reevaluated the treasure. He wanted more for the statue now. Enough, at least, to buy a good donkey.

The French official, a round-shaped man named Louis Brest, hesitated. Should he dish out the money from his own pocket?  Was the statue really worth that much?  What proof did he have that this statue was a masterpiece?  All he had was the word of Voutier, an amateur archaeologist.

Brest refused to close the deal. Not today, he explained. I’ll be back in a few days if I’m interested. Then he left. Discouraged by Brest’s decision, Voutier gave up. He headed back to his ship, determined to forget the whole thing.

But Yorgos didn’t forget. Nor was he discouraged. The statue was worth money, he figured. Even if the French were not interested, others might be. Yorgos lugged the upper half of the statue to a cowshed near his home along with the arm fragments, broken hand, and two pillars. He left the base and middle piece behind.  They were not worth as much, he reasoned, and were not as likely to be stolen.

The top half of the statue sat in the cowshed for days, surrounded by manure and straw, and guarded by Yorgos’ mother who sat at the door. Eventually, Brest returned with other French officers. After much dickering, they submitted to Yorgos’ demands, giving him the money he requested. The complete statue, all three sections and the other pieces found nearby, was carefully crated and shipped to France.

The statue arrived in Paris in February 1821. It was presented to Emperor Louis XVIII who immediately named the statue Venus de Milo. In Greek mythology, Venus is the goddess of love. The figure, scholars believe, once adorned a temple on the island of Melos. When the temple was destroyed, devoted worshippers hid the statue in a chamber to protect it. 

Today, the Venus de Milo stands in an alcove of the Louvre, its three pieces assembled, the seams between them almost invisible. Resurrected from the dirt by two men – one a simple farmer, the other a sophisticated French officer – it is one of the world’s greatest treasures.

Colonel Olivier Voutier (Wikipedia)
Artist depiction of what Venus de Milo might have looked like originally (Wikipedia)

Counterstrike

While researching At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times, I discovered the story of Stanislav Petrov and his heroic deed. At the time, his was not a well known story and it took a while to stitch together the details. What struck me then was how a split second decision and an act of defiance by a person who had much to lose if he was wrong, changed the course of world history.

It was a story I was anxious to tell.


If Stanislav Petrov pressed the button there would be no turning back. It would be the start of a third world war – a nuclear holocaust

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov sat in the commander’s chair in the glass walled room of Serpukhov 15, a secret bunker just outside Moscow.  It was just past midnight, Monday, September 26, 1983 – the beginning of a new shift for 44 year-old Stanislav.

The room, as always, was a hive of quiet activity. Serpukhov-15 monitored American nuclear missile positions.  It was filled with military officers and engineers glued to computer screens spewing information gathered by satellites and radar stations across the Soviet Union.  On this night, Stanislav Petrov was the head of its operations. 

Stanislav Petrov

Tensions were high. The United States and the Soviet Union, the world’s two superpowers, were at a stand-off.  Each had a stock-pile of nuclear weapons ready to use with the press of a button.  Stanislav’s mission at Serpukhov-15 was clear.  He was to monitor American activities, detect any incoming missiles, and if the United States attacked, order an immediate counterattack. 

That night, though, all was normal in Serpukhov-15. The computers hummed quietly, their screens a soft glow of reassuring information. There was nothing to worry about. The world was at peace. For the moment.

At 12:14 a.m., Stanislav’s computer screen turned bright red. “An alarm went off.  It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave,” he said.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union built up a supply of missiles during the cold war, a period of tension between the two countries that lasted from the end of World War II and the early 1990s

The screen showed that an American missile had been launched.  It was heading their way. 

Stanislav knew what he had to do.  In fact, he’d written the procedure manual himself.  In the event of a nuclear attack by the United States, he was supposed to press a red button labeled “START”.  That would launch nuclear missiles, allowing the Soviet Union to strike before enemy missiles reached the Soviet Union and wiped them out.  

All eyes turned to Stanislav.  He hesitated.  The computer system, he knew, was riddled with flaws.  There had been questions about its reliability before.   Was this just a false alarm?  There was no way to tell.

The computer screen flickered and changed.  A second American missile had been launched from the same base, it indicated.  Then it showed a third missile, a fourth, a fifth. 

Alarms rang.  Lights flashed.  The “START” button blinked.  Stanislav had to act immediately.  If the United States had launched missiles, they would arrive in 15 minutes.  If Stanislav waited longer, it would be too late to do anything at all.

Still he hesitated.  Something didn’t seem right. “I just couldn’t believe that just like that, all of a sudden, someone would hurl five missiles at us. Five missiles wouldn’t wipe us out. The U.S. had not five, but a thousand missiles in battle readiness.”

There was a second reason Stanislav hesitated.  It was something that he thought of every time he manned his post.  If he pressed the button, there would be no turning back.  It would be the start of a third World War, a nuclear holocaust.  Could he live with himself knowing that?

Each side feared a ‘first strike’ that would disable them before they could strike back with their own nuclear missiles

Tension mounted.  Seconds seemed to stretch into hours.  Then Stanislav grabbed the phone and placed an urgent call to his superiors.  He knew that with 5 incoming missiles showing on the screen, they would have automatically been alerted to the danger.  They’d be reviewing their battle plans, preparing to strike. 

“False alarm,” he told them. 

But was it really?  Stanislav was relying on gut instinct, not hard evidence. “I understood I was taking a big risk,” he said.

Nervous minutes passed.  No missiles arrived.  There was no nuclear destruction. 

The computer system had erred and relief settled over the room, followed by pats on the back, smiles all around, and congratulations to Stanislav for making the right call.

But although he was a hero in the room, Stanislav Petrov had crossed a fine line.  He had disobeyed orders and acted on his own. Instead of pushing the button as he was supposed to do, he’d bypassed the rules.  An inquiry was launched, and rather than being complimented for his bravery and quick-thinking, the matter was hushed and kept secret.

Exhausted from the stress of the investigation, Stanislav retired from the army and lived in poverty on a small pension, his story largely unknown.  When, in 1991, the Soviet Union crumbled and was replaced by a freer, more democratic government, his secret became public.

On May 21, 2004, Stanislav Petrov received a long overdue honour. The San Francisco based Association of World Citizens gave him its World Citizen Award in recognition of the role he played in preventing a global catastrophe.  In 2006, a documentary film, The Man Who Saved the World, was released world-wide, drawing even more attention to a hero who, until then, had largely been ignored and forgotten.

Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize at the Semper Opera in Dresden, Germany, in February 2013.

For further information:
“How I Stopped Nuclear War”, Stanislav Petrov’s interview with BBC News

Just Doing His Job’: Son Recalls Life of Soviet Colonel Heralded for Averting Nuclear War

Mysterious Deaths

With  COVID-19 sweeping the world, I’ve been thinking about several stories I had written about medical breakthroughs for Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite.  This one in particular seems relevant to our current situation.  The discovery by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was big news over a century ago, but its principles are still being touted daily as one of the best courses of action against the spread of the disease. 


In 1846, doctors at Vienna’s General Hospital in Austria were faced with a puzzling problem.  Why were so many mothers and babies in the maternity ward dying of childbed fever? And why was the death rate in one maternity ward many times higher than in another?

The hospital served many women who were charity cases.  These women could not afford costly medical care. In return for medical attention for themselves and their babies, they agreed to be part of the training program for medical students.  Surprisingly, the death rate in the training ward was ten times higher than in another ward where doctors rarely visited and babies were delivered by women known as midwives.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was determined to unravel the mystery of these strange deaths.  He observed the wards and patients closely.  With the other doctors, he carefully examined the dead bodies in the hope of uncovering some clues.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8OX0FNWANM
Google Doodle posted on March 20, 2020 to mark the day in 1847 when Semmelweis was appointed Chief Resident in the maternity clinic of the Vienna General Hospital

One day there was an unfortunate accident. One of the doctors cut his finger as he dissected a dead body. Even though the cut was only minor, the doctor soon felt ill.  He developed a fever and in a few days died of blood poisoning.

Semmelweis noticed that the doctor’s symptoms were suspiciously like those of the patients who had died of childbed fever. Acting on a hunch, he watched the movements of the doctors and students. An interesting pattern emerged.

Midwives who attended patients in the healthier ward where doctors rarely visited, did not examine bodies in the dissecting room. But doctors and students often went directly from the dissecting room to the other maternity ward with the higher death rate.  None of them stopped to wash their hands before going from one room to the other.

All at once pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. Semmelweis realized that doctors and students carried infection from the dead bodies into the maternity ward.  He announced a new rule.  From now on patients, students and doctors had to wash and disinfect their hands.  Just as he suspected, the death rate soon dropped remarkably.

Despite the success of his methods, Ignaz Semmelweis was ridiculed by other doctors. They refused to believe that such a simple procedure could solve the problem.  Semmelweis was forced to leave Vienna.  His rule was forgotten and again the death rate climbed.

Google poster recognizing Ignaz Semmelweis and demonstrating proper handwashing techniques

Years later, doctors around the world admitted that Ignaz Semmelweis was right. Today hand washing is recognized as one of the necessary steps in preventing the spread of disease.

Statue in Budapest honoring Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

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.

 

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. 

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?

 

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. 

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