What’s Your Writerly BEESWAX?

With three weeks until my next book releases, I’ve been busy lining up blog stops, reaching out to schools, preparing for a virtual launch party (stay tuned for details on that very soon) and more. Still, each day, I’m determined to find time to write creatively. And how do I begin each writing session? I begin it beeswax. Curious what beeswax has to do with writing? Find out in this oldie-but goodie post from 2013. That sixth grader is now in college, but I’m ever grateful for the day he introduced me to beeswax. Enjoy!

As a sixth grader, my son is taking a mini-course in home economics. For the sewing component, he hand-stitched a simple felt pocket with a button loop to hang in his locker. He completed most of the “locker dangler” at school, but needed to finish the final step – sewing on the button- at home. After rummaging through my button box for a “funky” button, he was ready to get started.

I’m no seamstress, but I’ve sewn on buttons before. I’ve also hand-stitched doll quilts and sewn on my fair share of Boy Scout patches. So, in a knowing “I’ve done this before” tone of voice, I suggested that he double up his thread so it wouldn’t slip off the needle, but not make it too long, lest it get all twisty and knotted. This sometimes happens to me, and it’s a nuisance, requiring that I back up or start that section over.

My son, however, was resolute. “I’m supposed to do this by myself,” he explained. “And I know what to do.” Then, with remarkable skill, he threaded the needle, doubled up his strand and tied a tidy knot.  Finally, peering into my sewing kit he asked, “Where’s the beeswax?”

“The what?” I asked.

He looked at me incredulously. “You know, the beeswax.”  I didn’t know, but now I do, and I think my days of knotted thread might finally be over!  For, as every REAL seamstress knows, a coating of beeswax quickly applied to the thread, not only strengthens and bonds the double strand, it also makes it slippery so the stitches glide knot-free through the fabric.

Sometimes, like thread, my writing feels tight and knotty. The words don’t flow at all.  What I could really use is a little beeswax for my pen, or maybe even for my mind, to loosen me up and get those words gliding.

Thankfully, I think I’m a better writer than a seamstress. Here’s my writerly beeswax: I begin each writing session with 5 minutes (or more if I’m having fun) of just playing with words.  Somedays I’ll free write something that’s on my mind. Other days I’ll open with quick hand written list of, say, all the words that rhyme with shoe, or all the different ways a penny could get lost. Often that’s all I need to get me going.

How about you? What’s your BEESWAX?

HAPPY NEW (WRITING) YEAR: Setting the Gears in Motion for 2022

In addition to the little toy train (circa 1906) that was my grandfather’s and the glass box that contains a chunk of the old-fashioned soap I helped make at the local 1740s living history museum where I volunteer, one of my favorite possessions above my fireplace is the pre-civil war mantel clock that I acquired from a dear family friend 20 or so years ago.  

Pre-electric, the clock needs to be “set in motion” each week by a steady winding of the gears using a lovely antique key, followed by a a gentle sideways nudge to the pendulum.  It’s a joy and a responsibility to do this each week, for my deliberate efforts set in motion not only a delightfully soothing tick-tock as the pendulum swings and the hands on the clock move forward second by second, but also a deeply resonant hourly chime,  set in motion by means of a coiled wire that releases a hammer that strikes the chime. 

All this winding, ticking, swinging and chiming is also a weekly reminder to me that “setting the gears in motion” is an important part in the life of a writer.  Nothing happens, writing-wise or clock-wise, if gears aren’t set in motion. In fact, with an antique clock, neglecting to set the gears in motion each week, if prolonged can freeze up the mechanics, thus destroying the lovely old-fashioned tick and gong that I so enjoy. 

Neglecting to set my writerly gears in motion on a weekly, or even daily basis, can have a similar effect. Not that my writing mechanics are destroyed, but I definitely start to feel rusty, and if I don’t do at least something to keep those gears in motion on a regular basis, it takes much longer to get back into a nice writing groove, or productive “tick-tock”, as I like to think of it. 

With that in mind, and inspired by my antique mantel clock, here are FIVE ways, we can keep our writing gears in motion, even when life gets busy, and especially as we start the new year. 

1. If writing daily in the new year is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might simply mean getting up 30 minutes earlier to do just that.

2. If trying a new genre or genres in 2022 is the goal, “setting the gears in motion”  could mean something as simple as going to the library and checking out several books in that genre and using them as mentor texts so that in 2022, you will be ready to write that first draft. 

3. If getting a manuscript ready for publication is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking thirty minutes every few days to revise again… and again… and again.

4. If publication us the goal, “setting the gears in motion” can be something as preliminary and vital as researching possible publishers or agents who might be good fits for your work… and then (when ready) sending that your best pieces off!

5. If  promoting an upcoming release is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking daily small, but proactive, steps to set up a blog tour, arrange for book store visits, reach out to your publicist to see what they are doing etc.  

“Setting the gears in motion” doesn’t have to be big and splashy. It just needs to be intentional and weekly, or even better, daily. Take it from my clock – regular devotion to the craft we love best, pays off!  

Keep ticking and I wish you all a wonderful start to the new year!

SNAIL MAIL BLESSINGS: Spreading Kindness the Old-Fashioned Way (Thank You Notes Edition)  

It has been almost two months since I invited you to join me in what I’m calling the Snail Mail Blessings Challenge. I created the challenge because, in this age of instant texts and emails, I’ve been missing the special connection of a different kind of correspondence – the old-fashioned hand-written note.  

Jump in anytime. Miss a week? No problem. It’s not about perfection or pressure. It’s about blessing others through the simple act of putting pen to paper, putting that paper in an envelope, addressing it by hand, affixing a stamp and sending it off. 

SPOILER ALERT: I’ve been a letter writer all my life. At first, it was because my mother and grandmother were in cahoots and made me. And how did they do this? Christmas and birthday gifts. I was informed at a very young that Christmas and birthday gifts were special (which they were) but that I wouldn’t receive them unless I remembered to write a thank you note to each person who gave me one. Writing thank you notes, they said, was like sending a gift back to the giver – but in written form!  What a concept! 

So, from a very young age, I wrote thank you notes. At first, I didn’t like writing them. They took so much time and I wanted to play. 

But my mother was smart and for birthdays she made sure we invited just a small number of party-goers, so that writing those notes as manageable. 

And my grandmother made letter writing fun because she would answer my thank you notes with lovely notes of her own and, just like that, we were writing letters back and forth. I still have many of them. Here’s an example of one I wrote when I was 10.  (Don’t you just love my frankness in describing my new neighbors?)

TODAY’S CHALLENGE:  I love my mother’s and grandmother’s idea hand-penned thank you note is like sending a gift back to the giver, but in written form.

This has certainly been true for me. I love getting thank you notes!  Some of my favorites have been from students I have visited in schools (and I love that their teachers are cultivating this art with the next generations).  Here’s are a couple of examples from a virtual visit with my friend Tina Cho’s class in South Korea back in 2016:

I also love this thank-you note I received soon after LITTLE EWE released. My father sent a copy of the book to his Great-Aunt Beanie, who he hadn’t seen in decades. It was his special way of reconnecting with her and the note she sent in return was certainly a gift to us.  Here it is:

Will you join me in writing a thank you letter to someone this week?  And maybe you could make this your goal for the next few weeks as well.  Blessings, all, snail mail and otherwise!

LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

I’ve been spending hours in my basement lately re-organizing and on one of the shelves I re-discovered this box of little toy cars. With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this car-themed post from 2017. Enjoy!

I was organizing boxes in my basement this weekend and rediscovered this – it’s a box full of my childhood Matchbox cars co-mingled with my husband’s –  with some more recent additions from when my kids were little.  The youngest cars in the collection are about fifteen years old – the oldest – almost fifty!  What amazes me most about this collection is the wildly contrasting condition of the cars.

I mean, if you look at them carefully, they are all comprised of the same basic elements – wheels, chassis, colorful paint job.  And, yes, of course, all have doors, hoods, and trunks (some that open which were my favorites as a kid). Yeah, yeah, some are trucks instead of cars, but basically they all fit into the same overarching miniature toy car category.

And yet, through the seemingly innocent act of playing with them… look how distinctive they’ve become! My husband’s cars are all battered up. He even had to repaint his little toy ambulance, a very necessary vehicle for his play world. That’s because for him, a perfect day of play involved car races and crashes and battles over rough terrain.

By contrast, my perfect day of automobile play involved creating a village in the fragrant bed of pine needles that covered the craggy old roots that abutted my grandparents’ driveway. I would spend hours creating roads and story lines to go with each car as they navigated my imaginary village world, stopping for tea at imaginary tea houses and picnics along imaginary vistas. Very different from my husband’s play.

But that’s where the originality and creativity emerges, isn’t it?

Writing stories is a lot like playing with toy cars.  We all begin with the same basic car parts – the words – and all our stories fit into a relatively small range of car models, i.e. story structures, plot lines and universal themes.

But does that mean that originality is impossible?  Not at all.  Like children playing with toy cars, that’s where the creativity begins!  So get out those stories-in-progress this week, or grab a new little car – and then PLAY! I wonder what new play worlds will emerge this week. Happy Monday all!

The Power of SETTING in PICTURE BOOKS

There once was a child who loved to play make believe and every day, using her imagination, she created story worlds. Somedays, she was a pioneer traveling the prairie in a covered wagon. Other days, she was teeny tiny person living amongst the craggy roots of her grandmother’s old pine grove. And sometimes, she was a magic fairy flying through sparkle-mist clouds in a world full of dragons. Her storyline was always similar – young girl, headstrong and brave in the face of danger, forging new friendships in the midst of the unknown. What changed each day, or every few days, was the SETTING! And that, for the little girl, was what made all the difference. 

That girl, if you haven’t figured out by now, was me and, as a picture book author, I’m still enamored with the power of SETTING to make a story shine. In fact, three of my six picture books began with quite ordinary settings. Goodnight, Ark began as a quite ordinary tale two storm-frightened children and a thunder-spooked dog all bounding into their parents’ very crowded bed. It wasn’t until I started playing with possible alternate settings – initially a hollow log in the woods – and ultimately Noah’s Ark – that the story really took off. And what made the difference that allowed my imagination to soar in new, creative directions? SETTING! 

A similar switching-up occurred with Goodnight, Manger which began as the story of a hen trying to get her chicks to sleep in a typical barn setting. It wasn’t until I decided to make it a very special barn – the stable where Baby Jesus was born – that the story took shape in a fresh new way.  Likewise, my picture book Love is Kind (Zonderkidz, August 8, 2018) began as the simple story of a small boy in a small town on a quest to get his grammy something for her birthday. It wasn’t until I made the protagonist an owl and set the tale in a magical woodsy setting, that the story took off.

Even though my opera-themed picture book, Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse, was set in an opera house from the get-go and Little Ewe, likewise, was always set in a meadow,  it’s still the settings that help those stories really take off.  Indeed, as picture book author Susanna Leonard Hill remarked about Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse in one of her lovely Perfect Picture Book Friday posts, “The fun of this book is in the setting – an opera house… Although the story is really about friendship, manners, and appreciation, the fact that it takes place in an opera house and involves operatic performance makes it educational as well as original and fun.”

In fact, for all my books (and yours too, probably), I would argue that the impact of carefully considering setting reaches far beyond just text and storyline. Fresh settings also open the door to fabulous illustrations because they allow illustrators, too, to stretch their imaginations and create spreads that are more unusual and fun than they might have been with more ordinary settings.

In Goodnight,Ark, for example, how much more fun is it to gasp at tigers jumping into a bed already crowded with sheep, wild boar and quail – than to see two small children and a dog crowding into a quite ordinary run-of-the-mill bed? Much more fun!

And in Goodnight, Manger how much more thrilling is it to see a frazzled mama asking a glorious array of angels, rather than geese, for example, to quiet down? Much more fun!

And doesn’t the special friendship between Delores and that Opera House Mouse seem that much more magical with the backdrop of velvet curtains and floral bouquets? 

Finally, just look at these darling spreads from Love Is Kind  and Little Ewe in which illustrator Lison Chaperon and Tommy Doyle each use their imagination, prompted by my settings, to create wonderful story worlds!

I don’t have any interior to show you yet from my next release BUNNY FINDS EASTER but you can take a peek on Amazon where you will see that a charming cottage setting enhances that story as well.

Because setting is powerful in the hands both author and illustrator, I think it’s important, as writers, to spend time contemplating how we might enhance our stories by taking full advantage of the setting. So, here’s my takeaway:  If you find yourself stuck in a story, wondering how to make it stand out from the rest, why not take some time this week to play with setting.  Maybe you will find, as I have, that a new setting might make all the difference!  Happy writing all!

SNAIL MAIL BLESSINGS CHALLENGE: The Cursive Conundrum

TRUE STORY! The first two Snail Mail Blessings Challenge cards I sent to my first two young recipients – ages 10 and 13 – had to be read to them by their mother. Why? I wrote them in cursive and they couldn’t decipher the script!

I should have anticipated this. After all, when I sign books at events, I always print the message for the child. And even my own children, ages 16 and 21, have a hard time deciphering the sweet notes their Great Aunt Gayle sends them. In fact the only words my own children know how to do in cursive are their signatures – and they had to really work to master those.

When I taught fourth grade, 20+ years ago, my favorite part of the day (and the kids’ too) was right after recess. I’d have the day’s cursive practice up on the chalk board waiting for them and they’d get out their cursive books and, after reviewing the letter or letter combo of the day, they’d practice while I read aloud to them from wonderful books like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Summer of the Monkeys, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This daily read-aloud/cursive time took up only about 20 minutes per day and we treasured it. And at the end the kids had not only mastered cursive, they also had been enriched by the magic of read-aloud time.

I, too, learned cursive in school as an eight year old. My photo for they day – an entry from my third grade journal- is proof. That cursive has really helped me over the years – particularly when I was taking notes and, now, as I write. Oh, yes, it’s possible, to take notes on a lap top or to type a story directly into a computer. Certainly it’s faster and infinitely more legible. However, there is something about writing long-hand that makes the concepts I am writing about stick better in my mind. And what’s the fastest way to write long-hand? Using cursive because the letters connect and so you don’t have to lift the pen off the page for each letter.

I have two questions for you (and me) as we write our snail mail blessings this week. First, will you use print or cursive? Second, if you are a parent to a child, will you consider teaching them cursive since it is no longer part of the public school curriculum? There are workbooks you can still order to help you. And, it doesn’t have to mean just one more thing you need to add to an already busy day. You can weave it into your read-aloud time! (Because you are doing that, right? You should. It’s a wonderful family practice that your children will treasure for years.)

I regret not infusing cursive into the rhythm of my own children’s days. But I think my daughter might just choose to learn it on her own. She loves the elegant look of cursive. She also is a devoted long-hand notetaker. I hope she does.

Happy Snail Mail Blessing this week! Let me know how it goes and if you use print or cursive.

Writing Thoughts: FAIRY Edition!

Miss A and I just returned from a special overnight visit to my sister’s new house in Pennsylvania so the kids could have some much anticipated cousin time!  Since it it was our first time being together in a while we decided to surprise them with a special project – building a fairy garden!  

Finding the perfect spot was easy – I mean just look at the wonderful antique planter.  Next, everyone, including me picked a wooden dwelling to paint. There was lots of chatting and giggling and imagining as we painted. 

Once everything was dry, it was time to build the garden, adding a river and even a dangling precipice for the gazebo. Doesn’t it look wonderful? 

Now, inspired by my life-long fascination with fairies (which has clearly rubbed off on my daughter and her cousins) here are three fairy-themed writing posts to inspire your creativity and foster some writing skills in your little ones. 

Fairy Post #1: One of my favorite early morning activities as a child visiting my grandparents was to tiptoe across their dewy lawn in search of fairy wash. Do you know what I’m talking about?  Find out in this oldie-but-goodie: FAIRYWASH: Capturing Ideas Before They Evaporate.

Fairy Post #2: A few years ago, my daughter and I (this was at the height of our own fairy garden building frenzy) were delighted to discover the most amazing fairy forest at Boxerwood Gardens in Lexington, VA.  See how that inspired my writing in this special post: BOXERWOOD FAIRY FOREST: Learning from the Experts.

Fairy Post #3: Find out how I used my daughter’s love of our fairy garden to foster letter writing skills in my reluctant reader and writer in this sweet post: HAPPY SPRING: Time to Write Fairy Letters!

Happy Writing, Fairy Style!

SNAIL MAIL BLESSINGS: Fostering KINDNESS the Old-Fashioned Way

In this age of instant texts and emails, I’ve been missing the special connection of a different kind of correspondence – the old-fashioned hand-written note. 

Beginning in my tweens through my twenties, I regularly wrote hand-written notes. Some were condolence letters. Some were thank you notes. Most were letters to friends in places I’d previously lived.  Many were letters to my now-husband of 29 years! All were written from the heart and they were my favorite way to connect across the miles.  

Each letter began with a connection point where I reminded the recipient how much I missed them or had been thinking about them. Then I would ask a question or two about how they were doing. Next, I’d share some of the meaningful things that were going on in my neck of the woods, often continuing a conversation thread from a letter I’d received from them.  I’d close with a reminder once again of how much they meant to me and how I looked forward to hearing from them. 

Looking back, I see there was an art to those letters and a special connection built through the bond of writing – an art and connection that I fear we are only a few texts and social media posts away from losing forever.

So now, with September just around corner, I’ve decided to shake the dust off my stationary stash and develop a new habit of writing one old-fashioned note once a week to someone special.

Would you like to join me in this letter writing journey, which I’m calling “Snail Mail Blessings”?  If so, please let me know in the comments section so we can encourage each other along the way.

Getting started is easy. Just grab paper, pen, a stamp and an envelope. Find a comfortable spot to write. Pause quietly for a moment and see if someone comes to mind – an old classmate perhaps, or a special aunt or uncle you haven’t written to in awhile. Maybe you know someone who needs a little boost of encouragement this week. Your heart will tell you when you’ve got the right person for this week. 

Then write the letter and send it the old-fashioned way- via snail mail.  

I hope that this challenge is a blessing to your week, as I know it will be to mine. And be on the look out in coming weeks for more thoughts and inspiration for ways we can bless those around us (and be blessed in return) through the simple act of writing letters and sending them the old-fashioned way.

Snail Mail Blessings to your and yours!

Laura 

DOWN THE SHORE: Thoughts from the Beach to Inspire Your Writing

My family and I just returned from a lovely week at the beach or “down the shore” as they say here in New Jersey. Our destination was Surf City on Long Beach Island. It’s a long, narrow island and we enjoyed watching the sun rise, beachside, and set, bayside, almost every day.

Here’s a little glimpse of my morning coffee and quiet time spot. I read and wrote in my journal here every day except for the one stormy morning we had. On that morning, I opted to stay in our cozy cottage instead.

Spending the week “down the shore” was good for this writer’s soul and my various activities reminded that this is not the first time I have found writerly inspiration at the beach.

So now, while I can still almost feel the sand between my toes and inhale that wonderful salty air, I’d like to share three posts from the past that came to mind as I enjoyed the week through writerly eyes.

Every day, at least once, I walked along the ocean’s edge looking for shells. As a result, I now have a new collection of shells on my dining room table. Many are broken, but all are beautiful in their own way and they remind me of this seashell inspired post from 2012: BROKEN SHELLS: Thoughts on Creating Compelling Characters.

The abundance of seagulls eager to snatch up sandwiches from unsuspecting beach-goers, made me smile/cringe as I remembered this writerly post inspired by some greedy seagulls on visit down the shore in 2013: LUNCH AT THE BEACH: Thoughts on Seagulls and Writing.

Finally, the discovery of these delightful painted stones, colorfully arranged around a street post, reminded me of this post from 2012 about visualizing our stories as stones. Not beach-themed, per say, but called back to mind when I spotted these stones. Here it is: STONE STORIES: What We Write and Why.

And now, as we step into this new week, I wish you the best as you write and create!

FIVE Traits That Make PICTURE BOOKS Perennial Favorites

Summer time reminds me that I LOVE perennials, those wonderful plants that bloom in my garden, season after season, where they are enjoyed by all, again and again. My favorites include my butterfly bush, the daisies, the echinacea, and black-eyed susans.

The joy of seeing my perennials bloom more gloriously than ever has gotten me thinking about how picture books – the good ones – are like perennials too, enjoyed by generations of kids and caregivers. So, what makes a picture book a perennial favorite?

I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface, but here are FIVE characteristics that I think elevate a picture book to perennial status.  What would you add? 

NOTE: This is my first time doing a post like this. What do you think? For comparison, see a previous version I posted in the summer of 2019: https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/picture-books-what-makes-a-perennial-favorite/