GUEST BLOG: Using Family History to Tell a Story with Middle Grade Author DARLENE BECK JACOBSON

invitation 1Today I’m delighted to have middle-grade author Darlene Beck Jacobson as my guest. Darlene’s debut historical novel, WHEELS OF CHANGE (Creston Books, 2014), was recently named as on of the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2015 by the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC). And just last week it was selected as one of  the 2014  Mighty Girl Books. Darlene’s delightful novel was inspired by a bit of family history and an old family artifact.  Today I have invited her to shed a little first-hand light on finding inspiration very close to home. Take it away, Darlene!

It’s been said that everyone has a story to tell.  I’ll go one step further and say our ancestors have great stories to tell.  Just because our grandparents and great grandparents are no longer with us, or weren’t famous, doesn’t mean their lives weren’t interesting.  I’d be willing to bet that everyone’s family has a person, event or incident that could be the catalyst for a novel or short story.

While researching my own family tree, I discovered two interesting facts.  The first was that my paternal great grandfather worked as a carriage maker in Washington DC at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  He worked on carriages for prominent people in DC such as John Philip Sousa.  The second fact was that his daughter – my grandmother – received an invitation to a reception at the White House and met Theodore Roosevelt.  That invitation is in the family scrapbook.

Think about that.  It’s not every day any of us gets to meet and socialize with a president.  It wasn’t long after discovering these tidbits that I came up with this premise:  What would happen if a girl – who adores her Papa’s carriage business and wants to become a blacksmith – sees the emergence of automobiles as threatening to that business.  What lengths would she go to keep that business from closing down?  Would she go all the way to the President?

With that premise, my middle grade historical novel WHEELS OF CHANGE was born.

ImageThink of the places your ancestors grew up in or originated from.  What is unique about those settings?  What kind of occupations did they have?  It is safe to say there are few carriage makers left today, just as there would be few telegraph operators, stagecoach drivers or telephone switchboard operators.  But you can bet kids would find those occupations interesting and maybe even exciting.  What did grandma eat as a kid?  What games did grandpa play?  All these bits and pieces of our ancestors’ lives have the potential to be a good story for today’s kids.

So, let the skeletons out of the closets.  Dust off grandpa’s war diary; go through that ancient box of trinkets.  Examine the old black and white photos and letters from your family’s past.  Somewhere under the dust of time, is a gem – a gold nugget – waiting to become your next story.

Thank you, Grandma for saving that White House invitation.  I wonder what grandma said to President Roosevelt at that reception.  Maybe that’s another story.

Happy digging!

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To learn more about Darlene Beck Jacobson visit her website . To see the WHEELS OF CHANGE book trailer, find out more about the book including where to purchase it, press here. Darlene is also active on Twitter and Facebook

GUEST BLOG: Stroll Back in Time with Denise DiFulco

Like most first-time novelists, I sat eagerly in front of my computer when the day arrived to begin writing. I set upon the desk next to me a cup of tea and the trusty thesaurus I’ve used since high school, and then… I froze. The story opens in Hamburg, Germany in the early 20th century with my protagonist as a boy sitting on the floor playing with a toy. But what toy? I could guess, of course—let my imagination paint in the details of the outline I had drawn in my head. But for my novel to be effective as a work of historical fiction, it had to be authentic.

I couldn’t write the first sentence, let alone the first paragraph or chapter without knowing how the apartment of a wealthy merchant family would be furnished. My characters couldn’t amble the city streets unless somehow I walked with them, listening to the peddlers bellowing from their carts or the trolleys careening down the cobblestone. It also would be helpful, I realized, to know where they were headed.

A time machine would have come in handy. Short of that, I had to build my own. An antique map of the city soon became my computer desktop’s background. Photo archives and historic videos on YouTube provided a vertical and three-dimensional picture. I mined for more details in books and documents—some long forgotten—borrowed from faraway libraries. Another treasure trove was online auction and ephemera sites. Where else could you easily find a dinner menu from a cruise ship that sailed in 1935? Or a German toy from 1910?

There remained some information that couldn’t be gleaned from paper or an electronic archive. One day I decided to take a stroll with one of my characters or, more specifically, as one of my characters. I noticed he holds his head quite high, and as a result observes things that are well above most people’s usual sight line. I learn so much from my jaunts with him and the others. They always seem to know where they’re going, and I’m always surprised where they lead.

Denise DiFulco is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal and numerous other online and print publications. She is currently working on her first novel based on her family’s experiences in Germany, Colombia and Cuba during the early 1900s. For more information go to