Making Friends with Winter

017After waking up to witness the aftermath of an overnight snowfall (above), I groaned, totally not in the mood for snow. We’d dodged the snow bullet at Christmas, though everyone I know was disappointed, having desired to frolic in the snow.

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Sometimes Winter seems to loom large . . .

Usually when snow falls, my mind dwells on the state of the roads. You get that way when you have dodgy tires and lack the money to replace them. So, I muttered to myself as I brushed the snow off my car windows: “Why couldn’t the snow fall when I didn’t have somewhere to go (i.e., at 3 or 4 a.m.)? If only winter could be more subdued.”

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Jordie tries to subdue Winter. I suspect that his plan is doomed to failure.

As I brushed the snow and scraped the ice off my windshield, I quickly grew tired of my bad attitude. Grumbling didn’t solve anything. I needed to embrace the season since, like it or not, it’s here to stay. But my mind required “winterizing” just like my car. For the car, I usually make sure the fluid levels are on par (particularly antifreeze and water in the radiator). To get myself in the winter mood, I need a constant supply of fluids too, namely, hot beverages like coffee, cocoa, tea, and apple cider.

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Jordie attempts to make friends with Winter.

One thing that helped my mood today, besides a warm cup of coffee, was the gladsome sight of freshly plowed roads. And the trees along the roads were beautifully laced with snow. I can’t imagine a wedding dress more beautiful than those snow-laden trees. That’s one of the perks of living in an area where winter makes its presence felt through snow and ice and iron-gray skies.

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These are not the trees I saw, but they have a snow-laced appearance, albeit with less snow than the ones I saw.

The Frozen-themed birthday party I attended on Saturday in honor of a newly minted three-year-old seems all the more appropriate now with snow on the ground. Alas, I don’t have an ice-blue gown as beautiful as Elsa’s. I’m forced to make do with a fun winter hat.

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This is not my hat. I made it for a little boy. But you can bet I’ll soon make myself a puppy hat.

Some cool good things have happened in this winter season—another reason to be joyful, rather than annoyed. I had a great Christmas and celebrated New Year’s day—my nephew’s birthday—with my family. And two days before the new year, some dear friends celebrated the birth of their second son. Oddly enough, he was born on the same day as the son of some other dear friends. In a season where life seems dormant or brittle, it’s great to hold a brand-new life in your arms. But I digress. . . .

Another way I can winterize my mind, besides having fun building a snowman or sledding (excellent choices), is to reread stories set in winter: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien, Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis just to name a few. I love curling up under a warm blanket while reading a book featuring a frozen landscape with snow I don’t have to shovel. And I have all of these on my bookshelf.

210329  Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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Happy New Year! And welcome to Winter 2015!

What’s your favorite way to winterize?

Central Park trees from hqworld.net. Elsa film poster from filmpopper.com.

Check This Out: Falcon in the Glass

Happy Halloween, folks! Instead of a trick, I’ve got a treat for you. . . . No, not this.

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In the house with me today is the one and only Susan Fletcher, one of the faculty members of VCFA.

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Susan in Venice!

Susan is represented by Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown, and has several novels in her arsenal, including Alphabet of Dreams, Shadow Spinner, the Dragon Chronicles (series), and others. She’s here to talk about her latest middle grade fantasy, Falcon in the Glass, published by Margaret K. McElderry Books. Here’s the synopsis:

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A boy risks his life to save some very special children in this fantasy adventure, set amidst the rich backdrop of Renaissance Venice.

In Venice in 1487, the secrets of glassblowing are guarded jealously. Renzo, a twelve-year-old laborer in a glassworks, has just a few months to prepare for a test of his abilities, and no one to teach him. If he passes, he will qualify as a skilled glassblower. If he fails, he will be expelled from the glassworks. Becoming a glassblower is his murdered father’s dying wish for him, and the means of supporting his mother and sister. But Renzo desperately needs another pair of hands to help him turn the glass as he practices at night.

One night he is disturbed by a bird—a small falcon—that seems to belong to a girl hiding in the glassworks. Soon Renzo learns about her and others like her—the bird people, who can communicate with birds and are condemned as witches. He tries to get her to help him and discovers that she comes with baggage: ten hungry bird-kenning children who desperately need his aid. Caught between devotion to his family and his art and protecting a group of outcast children, Renzo struggles for a solution that will keep everyone safe in this atmospheric adventure.

One of you will win a print copy of the book. So, let’s get this party started!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
205205Susan: 1. I make a mean vegetarian chili (with 2 secret ingredients).
2. I have read Beowulf in the original Old English.
3. I can do the hula hoop.
4. To research Alphabet of Dreams, I followed the Silk Road through the Zagros Mountains in Iran.

El Space: You are awesome! Falcon in the Glass was a joy to read. What inspired you to write it?
Susan: I fell in love with Venice maybe twenty years ago. One day when I had a bad cold, I wrapped myself up in a blanket, settled myself on the couch, and turned on the TV. The first thing that came on was a video documentary of Venice. After that, I was hooked.

San_Marco_(evening_view)What is it about Venice? I mean, aside from the fact that it’s flat-out gorgeous. I think part of what gets me is the water everywhere, and the reflections on stone that give the whole city a sort of rippling evanescence. And it’s partly the history of Venice, with its intrigues and over-the-top opulence. To me, St. Mark’s Cathedral looks like something out of a fantasy novel. And it’s partly that when you wander through those old streets and canals, you can almost imagine that the 21st century has dropped away and you’re living hundreds of years ago.

So I started reading about Venice, and eventually I stumbled upon the fact that if Venetian glassblowers took their professional secrets abroad, the authorities would send assassins to do them in. Wow. Talk about your industrial espionage. And what a great seed for a story!

El Space: What was the most challenging aspect of writing it?
Susan: Seems like every novel I’ve written has been full of, er, challenges—a polite way to put it—of one kind or another. Falcon in the Glass was no exception. The challenges were legion, but here’s one example: When I went to Venice in 2008, I toured the dungeons, which were built in the 16th century. The book was in a very early, formative stage at the time, but I had a vague idea that one of the characters might be put in prison. This turned out to be the case. But when I pinned down the dates of my story, I found that the dungeons I toured were built after the story takes place. Ack! I would have loved to have returned to Venice, but couldn’t swing it. So I had to dig out the information from secondary sources.

800px-Photograph_of_of_the_Doges_Palace_in_VeniceWhat were the prisons like before the 16th century? With the help of an historian—Patricia Fortini Brown of Princeton—and a librarian—Jim Nolte of Vermont College—I found pictures and descriptions of the earlier prisons, which were housed in the Doge’s Palace. One of the best sources was the notorious womanizer Casanova, who escaped from that same prison and described it in detail in his memoir, The Story of My Life.

El Space: I need to read that! How did you come up with Renzo? Letta and the other green-eyed children?
Susan: My first thought was to have a girl glassblower. But historically, though some girls painted glass, it would have been almost unheard of to have a girl working side by side with men in a Murano glass factory during the Renaissance. So I took a deep breath and decided to inhabit a boy, for once. I was also interested in writing about atonement, for reasons I don’t completely understand. I wanted to explore what happens when you do something that harms someone, and then you try to make amends. So I just . . . asked myself questions. Whom did the main character hurt? And why? And what does he do to try to make amends? And why is that difficult for him? You know, like that. And eventually, through my questions and through the actual writing, Renzo emerged.

dragonsmilk_169lA long time ago, when I was writing Dragon’s Milk, I came up with the idea of bird kenners, people who could communicate telepathically with dragons and who understood the language of birds. I think I got the idea from the old legend of Sigurd, who slew a dragon and, roasting its heart on a spit, tasted some juice from the dragon heart. And after that, he could understand the language of birds. In my dragon books, bird kenners all have green eyes. I chose green because it’s rarer than blue or brown, but not really weird, like yellow. I figured, kids might imagine that bird kenners might exist in the world today. In one of my favorite fan letters, a boy wrote me, “Ever since reading your book I have been looking for a green-eyed girl. Some have come close, but not close enough.”

13642El Space: Which authors inspire you?
Susan: I could give you a super-long list, but I’ll whittle it down. I got excited about the possibility of writing children’s books when my daughter was young, and a children’s librarian introduced me to some of her favorite children’s books, books by Katherine Paterson, Virginia Hamilton, Susan Cooper, Robin McKinley, and Ursula Le Guin. I was knocked out by what I found in the children’s department, and knew that this was what I wanted to do.

491204Later, I had the good fortune to be in a critique group with Eloise McGraw. In addition to being a consummate writer, she became a wise and beloved mentor and friend. I still aspire to write as well as she does, but I don’t think I’m ever going to make it.

Another stroke of luck: Ellen Howard and Margaret Bechard were also in that group, and both have also become dear friends. Ellen’s beautiful language and uncompromising emotional honesty continue to inspire me by setting the bar well beyond my grasp. Margaret’s spare, sharp prose and humor do the same.

6334Many other novelists for young readers continue to inspire me, but I’m going to list the authors of a few novels for adults that have mesmerized and inspired me: Khaled Hosseini. Charles Dickens. Mary Doria Russell. Kazuo Ishiguro. Louis De Bernieres. Liam Callanan. Jane Austen. Harper Lee. Barbara Kingsolver. David Guterson. Leo Tolstoy. And I think I’ll just stop there.

El Space: What tip would you offer to a writer who might be stuck in a writing rut?
Susan: When I’m in a rut, my natural tendency is to just keep beating my head against the same old wall. Bad idea! Over time I have learned to step away from the wall. Get out and take a walk. Go for a drive. Listen to some music I love. Go to a museum. Read a really good book in a completely different genre from the one I’m working on. Meet with some friends over coffee. Persistence is necessary for writers—especially for novelists—but ruts happen, and sometimes it’s best to open up new possibilities rather than try to just bull your way through.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Susan: I’d really like to do a sequel to Falcon in the Glass someday, but right now I’m working on another historical novel, one that takes place a couple of centuries before Falcon. It’s based on a little tidbit of historical fact, and I’m having lots of fun imagining the parts that are lost to history but which might have happened.

Thanks for being my guest, Susan!

Looking for more of Susan? Check out her website. Falcon in the Glass is available here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Powell’s Books

Comment below to be entered in the drawing to win a copy of Falcon in the Glass. Winner to be announced on Saturday.

Book covers from Susan’s website and Goodreads. The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark and Doge’s Palace photos from Wikipedia.

Check This Out: Magic Marks the Spot (a)

Ahoy there! Here we be with the great Caroline Carlson, whose book Magic Marks the Spot—the first of a trilogy, mind ye—sails into stores September 10, thanks to the good folks at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Caroline is represented by Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency.

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She’s here today and tomorrow, mateys! And tomorrow, we have a special giveaway, so be sure and stop over. And no, I didn’t have to resort to pressganging. Caroline is here of her own free will!

I see that hand there. Aye, ye guessed it. I know Caroline from VCFA. Here be a synopsis of Magic Marks the Spot:

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Pirates! Magic! Treasure! A gargoyle? Caroline Carlson’s hilarious tween novel The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates #1: Magic Marks the Spot is perfect for fans of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society.

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword.

There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.

But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas.

Written with uproarious wit and an inviting storyteller tone, the first book in Caroline Carlson’s quirky seafaring series is a piratical tale like no other.

pirate-cutlass-sword-721415El Space: Let’s start with four quick facts about yerself, lass.
Caroline: 1) I’ve worked as a library assistant, as a textbook editor, and now as a writer. 2) When I’m feeling stressed, I watch old episodes of Friends. 3) I am not sure there’s a point to a life without cheese. 4) I love swimming, baking, and being outdoors; I hate running, going to the dentist, and talking on the phone.

El Space: Arr, a fine list there. Plotter or pantser—which be ye? How’d ye make this discovery?
Caroline: I’m mostly a plotter. Before I start writing a new story, I need to know how the first twenty pages will go and what the climax of the story will be. I also usually have ideas for a few scenes that will take place somewhere along the way, though I don’t necessarily know how my characters will get from the beginning of the book to the end. Sometimes I’ll make an outline, but that only happens when I’m at least halfway through writing a first draft. I’m a fairly slow writer, so I try to make my basic story structure as solid as possible right from the start. Then, if all goes well, I won’t have to make huge structural revisions later on. But that’s a very big if.

Book two in The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy is sort of a mystery, so it required a lot of elaborate plotting. I had to know where the heroes and villains were at all times, what they were up to, and how long it would take them to travel from one place to the next. I discovered, though, that plotting a story to that extent can squelch some of the great spontaneous moments that come when you sit down in front of a blank page with no idea about what happens next. For the third book in the series, I’m planning to dive in without knowing too much about what my characters are in for. It’ll be scary, but I’m pretty sure it’ll also be fun.

El Space: How much is Hilary like ye? Different from ye?
Caroline: Hilary and I aren’t much alike, at least superficially. She’s brave and tough, and I am a total wimp. Hilary hates dressing up and learning to dance at finishing school, but I love dancing, and I’m more than happy to wear a fluffy, fancy gown now and then. I’m also pleased to report that my parents are much nicer than Hilary’s parents are.

What Hilary and I have in common is that both of us are passionate about following our dreams, and we won’t let anyone stop us from doing what we love. It turns out that being a pirate and being a writer both require a lot of determination and sheer willpower. We’re also both fiercely loyal to the people we love. Thankfully, I have never needed to use a cutlass to defend my friends, but I absolutely would if the occasion arose. And both of us can tread water for at least thirty-seven minutes.

El Space: Treading water is a fine trait for a pirate. Useful for when ye have to walk the plank. Now, what was yer favorite book growing up?
210329Caroline: This is a question that’s nearly impossible to answer! I loved stories about magic, mystery stories, and anything funny. Coincidentally, those are the same types of books I love now. Some of my all-time favorite children’s books are The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, the Anastasia series by Lois Lowry, and pretty much everything by Edward Eager, Madeleine L’Engle, and Diana Wynne Jones.

Alas, that be all the time we have today. Stow yer grumbling! Caroline’ll be back tomorrow. Tune in then for the special giveaway. In the meantime, ye can comment below or click on the links below to preorder Caroline’s book. Be sure to check out Caroline’s website here. Ye can also hail her on Twitter.

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Powell’s Books
Anderson Bookshop

Author photo by Amy Rose Capetta. Amy Rose’s book, Entangled, debuts October 1, 2013. Watch for it! Book covers from Goodreads.com. Pirate sword from mrcostumes.com.