Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day Stories

As a small child I tended to make a lot of noise early in the morning. My mother was a night person who patiently put up with my early morning energy during the week while Dad went to work, but on weekends he took charge of me. A morning person, he'd whisk me outside where I could shout and run around, letting my mother sleep in.

But Dad did more than exercise my body to burn off excess energy on those weekend mornings. He exercised my imagination. We lived in San Francisco, and he would take me for walks along Land's End, where we were more likely to run into a surprised fox than another person. As we walked through the foggy morning, with the surf crashing against the rocks below us, Dad would tell me stories.

Dad had come to America from El Salvador as a teenager. He learned his new language well enough to write and publish poetry in English, became a naturalized citizen, and would ultimately become Vice President Richard E. Bonilla at the United Nations. On those early mornings in San Francisco, however, he opened my mind to the idea that stories weren't just something published in books. They came from someone's imagination. Dad loved history, so he told me lots of stories from history. He gave the historical characters dialogue and personalities from his imagination, and brought them to life for my delight. I can still see him acting out the story of a nobleman laying his cloak over a mud puddle for Queen Elizabeth - at the same time explaining that it might have been Sir Walter Raleigh or it might not, but what mattered was the story.

I loved listening to my father's stories so much that I wanted to make up stories that were as good as his. So while he went to work during the week, I struggled to make up stories that I could tell him during our next morning walk. I didn't know very much history at the time, so my efforts were more contemporary. But I discovered that making up stories was even more fun than listening to them. And I began to look at the shelves and shelves of books in the library, and think: someone made that story up, someone like Dad and like me. And if they could do it...

It's often said that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Well, I was the noisy, energetic child who got the story - and with it, the idea that I could become a writer, and one day see my stories on those library shelves. Thanks, Dad. Even though I've grown into a night person, like my mother, and no longer get up early in the morning, bubbling over with high-volume energy, I've also grown into a writer who's up late at night working on her new story.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New Ways to Visit Readers on the Internet

A few months ago, the internet was merely a way for me to introduce readers to my books on my website, respond to emails from readers and librarians and teachers, and, I'll admit it, a great source of hidden object games for my Mac. But the net has suddenly expanded into a more powerful networking tool than I had anticipated, through Facebook and this blog, and also to a new way of doing more affordable school visits.

With budgets being cut across the nation (schools seem to be on the lower end of government financial expenditure), a lot of authors I know have faced school visit cancellations and a decrease in the number of new invitations. To my delight, I've received more invitations to speak to schools in the 2009-2010 school year than ever, and most of them are thanks to the internet.

The honorarium is usually the least of the cost of bringing an author to a school, unless you're lucky enough to have one living down the block. The real expense comes from the travel costs. But having a virtual author visit eliminates travel expenses completely. I've always offered typed chats with a class in a chat room, but that wasn't as personal as seeing the author face-to-face through a camera lens. I'd done some video chats in the past, but they usually involved traveling to a school that had a distance learning lab so their equipment could be used to transmit my talk to other schools. It was a good start, but it was still expensive, because the other schools had to pay for the use of that equipment as well as the author honorarium. But current software takes expensive equipment out of the equation.

Using my Mac iChat (something included on every Apple computer) and the built-in camera, I can talk to students in a classroom with no extra expenses. Even if the school uses PCs instead of Macs, either a teacher has a MacBook or the school has a PC with an AIM network. Plug the school's computer into a large screen, and a group of kids can see me easily. Timing become more flexible, as we can have either a single class visit at a single affordable price, or schedule several class chats during a day for a full day's honorarium, something that can't be done as easily if the author has traveled several hundred miles to take time out of her writing schedule to speak to students.

More and more friends are starting to do these virtual school visits. Okay, I miss the hugs from the kindergarten students, and I miss the cookies that kind-hearted teachers bake to share with me, and the other real moments of a school visit, but I don't miss the hours of driving and I'm sure the school administrators don't miss writing the check for the travel expenses. We both miss autographing, but I send signed bookplates for students after our virtual visit, so they have a little something solid to remember the experience. Who knew the internet could put an author from Montana into a school in Indiana so easily, affordably, and instantaneously?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

School Mystery Success

As the school year draws to a close, I'd like to share a unique school visit experience. A writing friend, Kiri Jorgensen, who teaches gifted and talented students at the Monforton School (a relatively small K-8 school) approached me with a plan for the whole school to write a mystery.

I visited the school in the beginning of the year, and spent two days talking to all the grades about writing in general and writing mysteries in particular. In preparation, Kiri and I met to plan out some basic parameters for the school's mystery. Then she met with the students to brainstorm ideas. She settled on their idea that a sixth-grade class would take a camping trip for a week to Yellowstone Park, and one by one kids' Palm Pilots would disappear. Suspicion would fall on the main character, Phil, who felt a responsibility to his father to "keep the family name in good shape," and was therefore desperate to prove he wasn't the thief.

Kiri wrote the first chapter, to get the kids started, and we tweaked it together. When I visited the school, I worked with the students to brainstorm ways Phil could try to solve the mystery, obstacles that would make it hard for him, ways that clues could be hidden, and methods to create atmosphere and build tension. Following my visit, Kiri met with one grade each month, from third grade to eighth grade, to plot one chapter in the mystery. Then she worked with one gifted and talented student from that grade to write the chapter itself. The children in kindergarten, first and second grades illustrated the chapters.

Each chapter was posted online at The Monforton Mystery. I would read it and then post comments on a special school blog, suggesting ways that the students in the next month's grade might build on the plot development in that chapter. The project culminated in a contest: any student could write his or her own ending to the mystery. And write they did - even several second graders submitted contest entries! Kiri and I read the chapters, and both agreed on the winner, though on the spur of the moment we decided to also award an Honorable Mention for another chapter that we both thought came very close.

Last week I returned for an school-wide assembly where the students who had written each chapter were recognized. Then every student who had submitted a contest entry was awarded a journal and movie passes, and I gave the Honorable Mention writer an autographed copy of  my mystery, Ghost Soldier. I read the winning chapter aloud to the student body, who hung on every twist and turn of Phil's trap to catch the thief, and loved the ending. The winning writer also received Ghost Soldier, and a cash prize.

What a wonderful school-wide project! I was delighted to be a part of it, and to give the students the satisfaction of not just reading mysteries, and discovering how mysteries were crafted, but also the joy of writing and owning their own mystery book that is now published online, and also in print for them to check out in their school library. Kudos to Kiri Jorgensen for coming up with this terrific idea, and for giving her students such a wonderful experience. This is something it would be exciting for other schools to try, and I hope they do.