Thought for the Day:
“Formats and approaches and publishers’ wants are constantly
changing. STORY stays as the one great constant. The challenge is
to find the way to tell your story in a way that is true to it AND
that works for the market of the day.”
~ Harold Underdown ~
Gifts for My Writer Friends:
Anne Greenwood Brown has a wonderful post HERE on using literary allusion in your writing. It’s terrific.
Janice Hardy, who shows up here a LOT, has a great writing exercise HERE. I’m going to have to try this one.
Click HERE for an excellent post by Jamie Gold on using beat sheets in your writing.
In my last post, I offered a gently-used ARC of Anyone by Ivy Pocket by Caleb Krisp to one of you. This week’s winner is Joanne Roberts. Joanne is a children’s book writer and illustrator from Pennsylvania who blogs at Bookish Ambition. You can check out her blog by clicking on the title. Congratulations, Joanne! I’ll get your book out to you this week. I have another wonderful giveaway, so read on!
You know I love historical fiction and this week I want to tell you about an incredible historical book for Tweens. I have no idea why I haven’t written about this sooner, but sometimes I lose my way. It’s been out for well over a year, and I read it not only as soon as it came out, but before. The author, Nancy Herman, is in one of my critique groups, and this book is one for which we all want to take a little credit. It is amazing.
All We Left Behind: Virginia Reed and the Donner Party is a story that many of us feel is familiar, but Nancy Herman tells the story in a way unlike any accounting I’ve ever read. Virginia Reed was thirteen years old in 1846 when her family and the Donner family left Illinois on what they thought would be the adventure of a lifetime. The state of California offered free land, a healthy environment, and a chance for a new, fresh start. It is not an easy journey, but hope for the future carries them all along. But the leaders, including Virginia’s father, make questionable decisions about the route to take. When they realize time is short to make it over the Sierra Madre mountains before winter, they make the decision to use an untried shortcut, a decision that changes hope to horror.
The story is told in the pitch-perfect voice of Virginia. We ride along with her on the journey and grow up with her in this extraordinary time in her life. This is not just a story, it is a coming-of-age story like few others. Virginia Reed was a real person and through exceptional and
thorough research, Nancy brings her to life to tell her own story. I believe this book should be in every middle- and high-school classroom and library where the study of this period occurs. This is not to be missed.
Nancy was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about her work. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed doing it.
TWS: The Donner party’s tragic journey was certainly an extraordinary event, but one not a lot of young people have read about. How did you decide on that as the basis for your book?
NH: I’ve always been interested in stories of life-and-death situations and the human qualities that define who survives. The Donner Party tragedy is such a story. Because 13-year-old survivor Virginia Reed wrote letters and, later in life, a memoir of her extraordinary journey with the party, I wanted to share her untold story of bravery and perseverance with young readers.
TWS: What did you do to prepare for writing All We Left Behind? Please tell us about your research process for this book.
NH: My research started with reading just about every book written about the Donner Party—and there are a surprising number of them! There are also a number of informative websites. I researched at the Bancroft Museum in Berkeley and was allowed to examine a private collection of Donner Party artifacts, first-hand accounts, and other papers at Sutter’s Fort. Each bit of research led to another museum or library or book, and of course I had to get all the period details right, too. That meant more research. The whole process became more and more fascinating, and I extended it by following the Donner Party’s journey on my own, by car, to see the landmarks that Virginia saw for myself. I blogged about that journey and it later morphed into its own informative website, http://www.followingthedonnerparty.com
TWS: How did I not know about that website? It’s terrific. Thanks for the link. Next question: The voice of Virginia Reed is very strong and real. How did you develop her voice?
NH: That’s so good to hear, because I struggled with Virginia’s voice through several drafts and revisions, but my beta readers repeatedly found her rather distant. This was probably the most frustrating part of writing the book for me, and I was eventually at an impasse. I finally had a breakthrough at a Highlights Whole Novel workshop, when author Liza Ketchum mentored me and encouraged me to dig into the very difficult, emotional scenes, mostly between Virginia and her parents, scenes that I had been skimming over and avoiding because, well—they were so difficult and emotional. When I stopped holding back and dove into those scenes, Virginia’s voice became loud and clear throughout the entire book.
TWS: Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you?
NH: Thanks, Rosi! I actually outlined each chapter chronologically beginning with life in Virginia’s hometown, through all the documented mishaps and tragic mistakes on the journey, to her family’s entrapment and eventual rescue. Scenes and dialogue and the presence of certain party members changed many times as the final manuscript took shape, but the chronology of events stayed the same.
TWS: I am honestly shocked this book wasn’t picked up by a traditional publisher. Was it always your intention to self-publish? Can you tell us a little about how you came to that decision?
NH: I had a very supportive agent, but after several passes, I was too impatient to wait any longer for a sale that could add another two or three years until the book was in print. By now I had some very strong ideas on what I wanted for the cover and marketing plan. With the blessing of my agent, I hired a book cover designer, a content editor and a copy editor, and self-published. I was successful in getting my book placed in visitor centers, libraries, museums and bookstores in California and other states along the Oregon and California trails. I am still working on the best way to offer it en masse to California school libraries, my biggest potential audience.
TWS: What do you hear from your young readers?
NH: I think the main comment I hear from young readers and adults alike is that they realize they knew very little about the Donner Party, beyond the sensationalism, before reading my book. This is probably the most gratifying comment they could give me, because my intent was to humanize these brave men, women and children, and tell their true story through Virginia Reed’s experience.
TWS: That was my experience as well. I think most people know little beyond the grisly details of the end of the story. Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts. Is there another book on the horizon?
NH: Thank you so much for asking me! And yes, I’m currently researching and beginning to write a historical fiction novel set against the backdrop of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. I already have a title, The Girl on Valencia Street, and I’m hoping for publication in 2017.
When I asked Nancy to do this interview, she generously offered a signed copy of All We Left Behind: Virginia Reed and the Donner Party book for a giveaway. To win, all you need do is have a US address, be a subscriber or follower, and tell me that in a comment you leave on this post. If you are reading this in your email, click HERE to go to the blog so you can leave a comment. If you would like extra chances, please spread the word by posting the link on a Tweet, blog post, Facebook, or any other way you like. Let me know what you have done in your comment, and I will put in extra chances for you for each that you do.
Don’t forget to check out Shannon Messenger’s wonderful blog HERE for many more Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday reviews and giveaways.