• Linda Ulleseit, author

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Back to School

animated_book02Each year it seems the first day of school is earlier and earlier. I can’t believe today marks a week since school started!

The first day of school I had yard duty at the student drop off. Very few cars came. Most parents walked their child to school. I greeted everyone with a smile and a, “Welcome back!” Students and parents all smiled. Everything is perfect on the first day of school–no issues darken anyone’s anticipation. Students all have shiny new backpacks and new clothes. Many carry department store bags with school supplies in them. (As an upper grade teacher, let me get on my soapbox here a moment and plead with parents to please unpack those supplies at home. I don’t have time to put paper in binders, unwrap pencils, etc.) Parents on the first day walk their children up onto the playground. They visit with other parents as their children find their new class lines and greet friends.

When school starts and the parents leave, the teachers push play and go. They introduce themselves. They talk about the policies and rules and curriculum. They lead getting-to-know-you games and art projects. And they go home tired.

My father was an elementary school teacher. On the first day of school, he made root beer floats when we all got home, and we took turns telling Mom about our first day. In my family, we have milkshakes on the first and last day. My sons are long out of school, but they still want milkshakes on my first day of school.

So the first couple of days are blissful in the classroom. Students are perfect. Teachers are patient. Then the teacher starts to ask the students to do something….like Math. And then begins the opportunity to fail. Every year I plead with the students to make sure they get their work done so they don’t get behind. Every year, some of them only last the first week. So as I sit here this morning with the first two assignments I’ve collected, I hope they are all here. Deep down, I suspect they won’t be and I will know right away which one of my students is That Student, the one who forgets to turn in work, then gets behind and frustrated, then misses so much they no longer know what’s going on. Once again I vow I will not let that student fall behind.

Welcome back to school!

Background in Historical Fiction

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One of the hardest things in writing historical fiction is to describe the world fully enough for the modern reader to imagine it while at the same time not having the character exclaim over, or even notice, items that are common to them.

In our everyday lives, for example, we pass by buildings in our neighborhood without noticing them, to the point that when one of them is demolished, we say, “I remember something was there, but what was it?” In my current work in progress, Aloha Spirit, I need to describe Honolulu as it was in territorial Hawaii. My protagonist never had to even notice buildings along the route from her home to the downtown shopping district. As an author telling her story, though, I need to describe it to provide historical context.

Another place authors of historical fiction have to pull back is when characters are doing normal household tasks. These tasks need to be described so the reader understands what is going on, and the process must be historically accurate. In Aloha Spirit, my character does the laundry, a task we all know well. But what did it look like in 1925? What type of machine was used? What brand of soap? These details give the story a historical accuracy and flavor, but it’s important to remember that the character isn’t going to notice the washing machine any more than you notice your coffee pot. Joan Blos wrote an article in the School Library Journal. She included the passage “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial” to illustrate the awkwardness of this type of description. A modern writer surely wouldn’t describe cooking as Blos did in the above passage, so why should a historical fiction writer do so?

Personally, I prefer a little more detail about the setting in historical fiction because it helps me envision the era. I can honestly say I have never felt a historical fiction piece to be over-described. I appreciate the research that goes into novels of this typed, and I get tired of blow-by-blow accounts of battles and political intrigue, but the details of the furnishings, clothing and food, for example, captivate me.

 

 

Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?

 

Remembering

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I am a pretty good gardener. I plant and trim and weed the back yard, and people compliment it. There are a few things I can’t grow. Fuchsias don’t like me. Neither do yellow daisies or orchids. Violets, though, have always despised me. I have never been able to get a violet to survive, much less bloom.

Violets worshiped my mother-in-law, however. For thirty years, she had a pot of violets on the narrow windowsill above her sink. She constantly dumped the plant into the sink, stuffed the dirt back in and replaced it on the sill. It got indifferent light and inconsistent water, but it thrived. She passed away two years ago this August, and her windowsill no longer has violets.

On Mother’s Day, my husband presented me with the violet plant in the picture. I immediately placed it on my windowsill. I really didn’t expect it to live very long. The flowers wilted, but the leaves stayed healthy. Then, to my amazement, it bloomed! I have not yet dumped it in the sink, but it is beautiful and healthy. It’s not only my care that’s keeping it well. I know Mom is helping. This amazing woman laughed at the violet dirt spilled in her sink, and every day my violet reminds me of that memory.lily

Outside in that yard I love to care for, I had an orange canna lily. A year ago, it was one wilted leaf and one dead leaf. I dug it up, intending to toss it, but my husband insisted we give it another chance. I stuck it in the ground and forgot about it. The picture to the right was taken this morning, a year later. He’ll never let me forget I almost killed this plant. Isn’t it gorgeous? And that is how memories are made.

And memories usually make their way into my novels.

 

Pure

purePure, by Julianna Baggott, is my new favorite post-apocalyptic novel. At first, the horrific descriptions of the people are off-putting. The detonations have fused objects into the people so that their appearance is no longer completely human–they are not Pure. Then you get to know the characters. Pressia is the main character. She has just reached an age when she is supposed to turn herself over to the military for training–as a live target. Instead, she goes on the run. She meets other characters with damaged, tortured bodies. Almost all of these characters, though, have good inside. Don’t get me wrong, these are complex characters. They aren’t all love and sunshine.

Then there are the Pure. These are people who live in the Dome and were protected from the explosions. Their bodies are pure, but their intentions are not. Again, you meet complex characters in a complex world. All is not well in the Dome, either. Partridge’s father is an influential man in the Dome. He feels isolated–his father is super busy, his brother is dead, and his mother lost outside the Dome during the blast. Then someone suggests his mother is still alive. Partridge breaks the law and leaves the Dome to find her. He meets Pressia and worlds collide.

This is a fantastic story you will want to read in one sitting. It will have you crying and cheering as you root for the most unlikely characters.

The Guardian Herd: Landfall

landfallThe Guardian Herd: Landfall, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, is the third book in the Guardian Herd series. I didn’t know that when I bought it, and the story worked very well anyway. Now I have to go buy the first two and the last one, too! If you have read my books, you may guess why I picked up the book in the first place–flying horses! Then I found out the author also lives in Northern California. Done deal.

The story centers around a black flying horse named Starfire who is badly injured. The evil Nightwing will stop at nothing to kill Starfire, and he’s offered a reward to any pegasus who will turn him over. The herds split in their loyalties, some to Star and some to Nightwing. Star’s supporters unite, although it is a tentative agreement, and hide Starfire while he recovers.There is both friendship and jealousy among his friends. Meanwhile, Nightwing’s support grows stronger.

This novel is aimed for middle grade readers. Older students who like simpler stories will love it, too. The horses are wonderfully complex characters. Star realizes a war is coming, but he is reluctant to hurt any of the pegasi on either side. Girls will love the beautiful pegasi and flowing language. Boys will love the intensity of the action and upcoming battle.

The eBook Market

I recently read an article from Fortune online about trends in sales of ebooks. With the release of sales numbers for 2015, many publishers are reporting drops in ebook sales and predicting traditional book sales will pick up. This Fortune article attempts to explain the whole picture. This is a chart they share:

2015-aug-trend-units

Keep in mind that overall ebook sales might be slowing, but are still growing 1% or so a year. What’s changing is the publisher of those books. As you can see, traditional publishers are losing market share while independent publishers are gaining market share (go Indie!).  The article goes on to predict that digital sales will continue to rise.

I used to go to the bookstore to buy my books. I would see displays created by the Big Five publishers to announce their new books. Often, I would buy them. Usually, independently published books are not carried in bookstores. They don’t have the same visual marketing ability.

Now, however, I browse for books online. Goodreads book recommendations, as well as book review blogs, now shape my buying decisions. Suddenly the exposure to all sorts of books has exploded–like it did for music when my sons bought their first iPods. I never pay attention to whether a book is independently published or not, but I do read reviews. I also leave reviews. In a future full of ebooks, those reviews will be golden to both authors and readers.

If you have never reviewed a book online, I encourage you to do so. Amazon reviews are easy to do. Be honest about what you liked and disliked, but be accurate. Friends of mine have had reviewers blast non-existent sex scenes and use the wrong main character’s name. Be specific, too. If you didn’t like something, say why. Bad reviews may punch an author in the gut, but if it’s honest they recover. Good reviews, too, should be specific. Too much gushing loses its impact. So say what you liked and say why. Say what you didn’t like and say why. Go ahead. Write a review today and help someone discover a new book to love! Especially if it’s one of mine.🙂

 

 

 

 

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