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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Scrabble and Scratch of It All

A lot of writers I know bounce between two worlds.  I’m no different.
Most writers are introverts by nature, wouldn’t you say?  We make forays into the real world, look around with delight and excitement, but then retreat to our hidey-holes to work. 
It’s in our writing spaces that we spend huge amounts of time dreaming, digesting and then translating.  We change ideas into symbols.  Then we undo, destroy and rework lots of what we just did.  Scratch, scrabble, gnaw, pause, erase, pause, write, pause, erase again; we are creatures who dig into and chew our way through life.  We stop answering the phone.  We do everything but disappear into our pages.
For me at least, that’s one side of how I live.  The other side loves to be out there in the world and has lots to say about it.  The other side gets inspired by my contact with kids, by the way they see, and by hearing from readers of all ages.  And now that I’ve just finished my sixth mystery, I am traveling and talking quite a bit.  In order to do this right, I sharpen my thinking in various directions, shaping it to fit the audience.  If talking with kids only, I try to reveal how I made these books and to share the mess, worry and thrill of it all.  If speaking at a convention or book festival, I may also be focusing on common core issues, fiction versus nonfiction in our schools, literacy, libraries, and the balance between electronic media and books. 
Django hopes to go along
This process of gathering my thoughts for a talk is always both centering and energizing.  It forces me to roll the cat hair off my clothes, shove whatever I’ve been working on to one side and come up for fresh air, and I always enjoy my interaction with the professionals and kids that I meet.  Always.  I wonder, at these times, why I don’t say Yes to more.
And then suddenly I’m back home, jiggety-jig, and as soon as my suitcase is unpacked, zing!  I’m like a magnet in front of steel.  I’m back glued to my chair in the laundry room, typing or scribbling away.  And as I’m one who clearly loves to make books, almost everything I do in my workspace centers on that.  It’s as if the everyday world fades and vanishes when I step into my hidey-hole. 
It’s a bit rubber-band-like, this stretch-snap-stretch that defines my real world vs. my writing world. 
I think I like this blog business – I’m in the laundry room, but also here with you.  I’ll have to remember that this is possible.  But wait – hold on a moment while I scribble down an idea that just occurred, one to go in the next book!  Just a moment…

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pieces and Players

I’m thrilled to report I’ve been deep in criminal activity.
Remember Calder, Petra and Tommy – my characters in Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game?  Well, they’re ba-a-a-ack!  (Tommy insists on an ominous ta-TAH flourish here.)  And this time, they’re together in the same book with Zoomy, from The Danger Box, and Early, from Hold Fast.  They’re all in my new mystery, Pieces and Players, which will be out April 1, 2015.
It might be more accurate to say I’m in their mystery.  Everyone hears writers talk about characters ‘coming alive’ in the writing process, surprising them with rogue actions or unexpected acts of kindness.  Well.  Ever since the whisper of this five-some idea entered my head several years ago, these five voices have grown slowly louder and louder.  They got older, stronger and bossier – until they finally managed to take over. 
Help!  I muttered to myself as I began to scribble notes.  Can I keep up with these guys? 
Soon my laundry room, where I write, was a swirl of activity, and dangerously crowded; five thirteen year-olds jostled for position, surrounded by thirteen stolen works of art, a handful of suspicious adults, a sudden death, skin issues and body odor… and this is a small room.  I stopped turning on the washing machine and dryer while working; it was already far too noisy in there.  What was happening?  Yikes!  At times I felt I might fall to the floor, panting for breath, and my characters might run right over me, leaving a sneaker print on my nose and a Post-It next to it. 
Brett Helquist's illustration of Tommy, Zoomy, Early, Calder, and Petra

And then one morning I sat down with my coffee, pushed shut the laundry room door, and the five looked calmly at me.  It was clear that I was no longer in charge.  Someone had lost and someone had won.  These kids had made their unwieldy group match an unwieldy crime – a heartbreakingly true art crime that really does need to be solved – and even left some room for Mother Goose, dilly beans, and a hairy cat whose name is Rat-a-tat.  After circling around each other and me for months, the five started on a dangerous adventure. Soon my characters and I were listening to the stolen art, and -- was the art also listening?  And could that have been a ghost? 
Ms. Hussey and Mrs. Sharpe are back, along with a number of rich folks with wrinkly skin and a gorgeous old museum.  And although the action happens all over the city of Chicago in this story, my laundry room, in fact, still feels crowded. 
I’ve handed in my final copy edit, guys, and Brett Helquist has done the artwork, so quiet down!  Huh?  What are you saying? 
Oh, that!  Okay, I’ll share.  Here’s what I believe:  If anyone can get to the bottom of the biggest art heist in United States history, the one at the heart of this mystery, it’s Tommy, Calder, Petra, Early and Zoomy. 
Thirteen pieces.  Thirteen players.  And yes, a writer who feels lucky she was along for the ride.