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"Frequently hysterical ... devastatingly honest writing that surprises with its occasional beauty and hits home with the keenness of its insight." 

—Kirkus Reviews, starred review


"So much fun... an insightful story about seizing life for all it’s worth while you have the chance."

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— Los Angeles Times

“This is a love story. Not a romantic love story, but a story of the development of a deep caring relationship with another being. Humorous and sad at times, it brings us to ask ourselves what we think about heaven and how we get there. Believable and fast-paced, it keeps us reading to the end.”

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Elizabeth Wein, Part II: An #NY14SCBWI Interview

Here's the second installment in my interview with Elizabeth Wein, the author of several historical novels, most recently CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE.

Elizabeth is one of the keynote speakers at the SCBWI conference in New York in February.You can sign up here if you haven't. It's likely to sell out and we'd hate for you to miss the fun, insight, and inspiration.

In this round, Elizabeth talks about her research practices and what it's like to be an American author living in Scotland.

What are some of your favorite challenges when it comes to researching your historical novels? Do you have favorite tips and tricks to share? 

“Favorite challenges”—isn’t that an oxymoron?!

I think probably the most frustrating challenges to resolve, and the most rewarding when you find the solution, are little history-specific details. For Rose Under Fire, one of the themes was the V1 flying bomb, an unmanned aircraft used by the Germans against Allied cities in the final year of World War II.  Essentially these bombs were the first guided missiles. I did a lot of online research (there is a ton of technical information regarding military history available online; I found a downloadable version of the original 400 page manual for the V2 rocket, in German).

I read books about the design history and social history of the V1. I got a firsthand account of what it was like to have to live in terror of them from my father-in-law, who had been a teen in southern England at the time; I even found an audio recording of a V1 falling. I learned a lot about this bomb from many different angles, but I needed to know some very specific details that weren’t making it into the historical overviews: which companies manufactured the fuses for V1s? How was the fuse installed?

My character Rose was going to be forced to make fuse parts as a slave laborer later in the book; I wanted her to see the manufacturer’s name on a captured fuse while she was still safe, to help her make a human connection with a very inhuman object. I also wanted to know exactly what parts were made in the munitions factory where Rose would eventually be forced to work.  I wanted specific connections.

Eventually, after persistent hours of trawling books and the internet, I came across a passage buried in a Ravensbrück survivor account that exactly described the work the author was made to do in the very factory where Rose would be working. Then, I got in touch with Steve Venus, probably the world expert on World War II bomb fuses, and got his advice on the correct fuse type as well as information about the prisoners who had been forced to work in Nazi munitions factories.

The challenge, and the frustration, is in the hours spent searching for information which will only be used in a few lines in the novel.  It’s information I could easily gloss over. I don’t have to mention the fuse manufacturer when I describe the fuse, or describe the specific piecework Rose is doing when she sits down at her bench under the harsh factory lights. Maybe the time I spent chasing down these minor, irrelevant facts could be better spent in crafting the novel, or even in keeping my house clean.

But the joy of stumbling across that perfect description I’m hunting for, and the reward in communicating with the man who worked as a consultant for the Danger UXB television series, are so worth it. So the challenge of getting the details right is its own reward—not just for the satisfaction of bringing high-falutin’ literary artistry to the book, but also for the personal connections it often brings me.

Tips and tricks:

  • Don’t limit yourself to English language sources! The foreign language versions of Wikipedia and Google containdifferent information from the English versions. If you are researching any non-English-speaking country or historical figure, look up your search term in the language of its origin. Google Translate works well enough these days that it can give you a reasonable idea of what you’re reading even if you don’t know the language. Pierre Paoli, a Frenchman working for the Gestapo who was my basis for Etienne Thibaut in Code Name Verity, has his own entry in the French version of Wikipedia but not in the English version. Often you will find foreign language websites that give you information you can’t get in English; I found biographical information about all the Polish women experimented on at Ravensbrück by searching Polish genealogical records. Also, don’t forget that you can sometimes order books that are unavailable in our own country from mail order sources in foreign countries.
  • Don’t be afraid to contact experts. They are usually extremely willing to help. People enjoy sharing their expertise and enthusiasms. Offer to thank them in your acknowledgments, and send them a copy of the published book. I’ve found that people don’t often expect this courtesy, and are very grateful for the recognition.
  • Try to find original sources.  Read books and newspapers and watch movies published during your time period: they are fantastic sources for period detail and language. Go to museums and look at stuff—tools, clothes, toys, furniture (in the case of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, airplanes!)—anything from your time period that will help you get a sense of what it was like to really live with and use these things. When I was writing my novels set in ancient Ethiopia, I got access to the British Museum’s collection of sixth century Ethiopian coins. Immerse yourself in your time period. 
  •  Persist!


What's it like being an American writer in Scotland? 


I guess that’s not really a function of being American; we’re all cold. The average summer temperature is 62 F or 17 C (I keep telling people that if anything ever drives me out of Scotland, it will be the weather.)

I have lived in Scotland for fourteen years, which is longer than I’ve ever lived in one place in my entire life. So I feel pretty much at home here. I love where we live, right at the end of the motorway system, in the foothills of the Highlands. A land of wild beauty is at our back door – we can see snow on the mountains from our window from September to May. There are a wealth of literary festivals to attend, and local councils and the Scottish Book Trust are wonderfully supportive of local talent. Sheila Averbuch and Louise Kelly have been pulling together a Southeast Scotland network for the SCBWI British Isles region (, which is good news for writerly camaraderie. And I honored to be part of the somewhat seasonal Wayside Writers’ Circle(, spearheaded by the laudable and inspirational Jane Yolen.

I like the perspective that being an alien gives me. Many of my characters are transplanted from their homeland. And Scotland is a good place to live.

Can you tell us what's next? Or would you have to imprison us?

I’m working on a book set in Ethiopia in 1935, with a couple of young pilots in it. So I guess you could say I’m combining my interests!

It’s not a secret, but my answer is vague because I’ve found it hard work to write and I tend not to talk about stuff I’m working on until I feel confident about it.


For more about Elizabeth, check out her home page. Be sure to click on her blog. There are some really great entries.



Elizabeth Wein, Part I: an #NY14SCBWI interview

Elizabeth Wein is author of one of my all-time favorite novels, CODE NAME VERITY. Set in World War II, the book is riveting, heartbreaking, elegant, emotional, and surprising, all at once. Seriously: It blew my mind. If you haven't checked it out yet, please do (and then pick up ROSE UNDER FIRE, its stunning companion).

I can't wait to hear her keynote at the upcoming national SCBWI conference in New York. She's not only a master writer, she's also generous with her wisdom. So generous, in fact, that I am splitting my interview with her into two parts.

If you haven't yet signed up for the conference, don't delay. It's likely to sell out. And now, please enjoy what Elizabeth has to say about her books and her process for creating them. 

You write historical fiction—how do you choose which era you'd like to write about, or more specifically, what made you leap forward in time to the 20th century? 

Elizabeth WeinI was pushed. My editor at the time asked me to write about something more mainstream than Ethiopia in the sixth century. After I got my own pilot’s license I’d been inspired to write several short stories about flying, but the one that was praised the most was set during World War II—it was about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother so she can become a Royal Air Force pilot during the Battle of Britain. While I was doing the research for this story I’d uncovered information about the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Special Operations Executive, and there was already an idea for a novel percolating in the back of my brain.  (The short story is called “Something Worth Doing,” and it’s available in Firebirds Soaring, edited by Sharyn November, as well as in Egmont’s “enhanced ebook” version of Code Name Verity. Theo, the main character, makes a cameo appearance in Code Name Verity.)

It would be facile to say “I don’t choose the era, it chooses me”—but to a certain extent it’s true. Code Name Verity isn’t the first novel I’ve written about the recent past, regardless of what the outside world sees. The unpublished novel I wrote after I finished The Winter Prince (1993) was set in New Jersey in 1936.  Also, if you look at my short stories, you’ll get a wider view of history than you do in my novels—I have published short stories set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, 18th century Jamaica, 17th and 19th century England, mid-20th century Pennsylvania and Kenya, and modern New York and Scotland in addition to World War II.

The bottom line is that I write about eras which fascinate me, but ultimately my stories are character driven.  My first five novels all stem from my teenage obsession with Arthurian legend, with a foray into sixth century Ethiopia. It was the possibility of a connection between the ancient kingdom of Aksum and Arthur’s Britain that I loved the idea of—but mostly, as I wrote, I was deeply enjoying playing with my characters and the loving, dysfunctional family I’d created.  When I started writing a novel exploring some of the roles women played in World War II, it was the individual characters who took over and drove the plot and ate my brain alive.

Your most recent two books are, I think, wonderfully distinctive in part because of the way you use POV and non-linear structure. How much do you know about the structure of your story as you set out?

My first five books are all exactly fourteen chapters each. I did that on purpose, for no particular reason; it felt right. I was talking about this recently and commented that “fourteen” is such a random number to have chosen for my chapter divisions, and the person I was talking to (I think it was the illustrator Kathleen Jennings pointed out that there are fourteen lines in a sonnet.  So maybe not so random after all. I thought a LOT about the structure of sonnets before I thought much about the structure of novels.

When the inspiration for Code Name Verity hit me like a bolt of lightning, the dual narrative structure of the novel instantly suggested itself to me as well. But until I started to write, I had no idea how liberating and exciting it was going to be to be able to play with narrative form the way Verity does.  I had recently read The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace, and I was deeply impressed by how cleverly the “documents,” a collection of letters and subpoenas and newspaper clippings, all came together to form a coherent narrative and a mystery. So I was partly inspired by trying that out, too.  Code Name Verity was a very experimental book for me.

Maybe it’s no surprise, because my two recent books are not the first time I’ve used an unusual point of view for telling a story.  The Winter Prince, my first novel, is a second person narrative.  Throughout the novel the narrator addresses his interior monologue or whatever it is to “you,” a specific “you” in this case, his mother.  However, there is no context for the telling—is this supposed to be a letter? Is it actually written down? Is he speaking directly to the person he’s addressing? If written down, does his mother ever read it? The ambiguity of the context is part of the novel’s disturbing aura—the narrator is an ambiguous kind of guy—but in later years it bothered me as an author, and I inserted an explanatory line of context for The Winter Prince in my fourth novel, The Lion Hunter, when one character (not the one to whom The Winter Prince is addressed) mentions that she’d proofread the manuscript for the narrator!

With Rose Under Fire, I knew from the start that the book was going to be divided into three sections. I knew the names of those sections: Southampton, Ravensbrück, Nuremberg. I knew that the first would be a journal, the second a cathartic outpouring—an imitation of a survivor account—and the third a consciously structured article. I didn’t know what the transitions between the sections would be or how that would work, but I knew that there were three distinct stages of Rose’s life to be described in three distinct ways, and I wanted to show her emotional growth as a young woman and also her technical growth as a young writer.

I guess the answer to the question is that I have a broad outline in mind—like a sketch. I fill in the detail as I go along.


Tips for researching historical fiction, what it's like to be a writer in Scotland, and a glimpse at what Elizabeth is working on next!

Be sure to visit Elizabeth's home page, which has links to all sorts of treasures for writers and readers.


Jack Gantos: an NY14SCBWI interview

Jack GantosI once knew this celebrity journalist who, when she met George Clooney for the first time, started crying and couldn't get a word out, which is a problem for an interviewer. Finally, to break the awkwardness, Clooney kissed her. This is a genius way to get Clooney to kiss you, I suppose, even if you know he's never going to commit.

Jack Gantos is my George Clooney, although I'd definitely settle for a demure yet firm handshake next time I see him. 

Jack writes everything: picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels, adult novels. And everything he writes has this spectacular gothic sheen to it. He's funny, sometimes dark, deeply humane, and so darned elegant in his structure and style. Please do yourself a favor and read his books. All of them. 

It's no wonder he's won a Newbery (for DEAD END IN NORVELT), a Printz Honor (HOLE IN MY LIFE), a National Book Award finalist spot (JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWS THE KEY), and a Newbery Honor (JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL).

There are more awards, but I'm crying too uncontrollably to type. Also? My hands are covered in paraffin because to do this interview with Jack, I channeled the spirit and hairdo of Miss Volker from NORVELT and its sequel, FROM NORVELT TO NOWHERE.

Jack is one of the keynote speakers at the SCBWI conference in New York in February. You won't want to miss him. Meanwhile, learn a bit about how he works, how he revises, and how he'd like to be remembered when someone finally does slip him a poisoned cookie.

Miss Volker

You didn’t turn out as badly as I feared. Probably because I cured your nosebleeds. You wasted a lot of time bleeding, you know. Speaking of wasting time, how do you avoid it and get your work done? As I recall, you preferred gunplay and the like. What’s a typical Jack Gantos day?

The first thing I practice is leaving the house and going to the library on my writing days. This has been my routine for decades and it continues to work. If I stay home I am entirely distracted by the cats and mail and email and food and gardening and all manner of distractions (no more silly gunplay) that I foolishly indulge in. So I pack up my work/writing bag each morning and leave the house for a good eight/ten hour session of writing and rewriting and reading and research and chatting up all my favorite librarians. I try to push the book forward each day—even on conflicted days when I’m off speaking across the country or internationally. I take notes on the stray  thoughts that occur to me when I travel, and quite often it is these random thoughts which turn out to be the gems. Plus, I always travel with manuscript and can always find time to closely read through a handful of pages and mark them up—over and over—until they are fully decorated in red ink.

I’ve heard tell you write 100 drafts of your books. Why don’t you just get it right the first time? What are you hoping to accomplish by continuing to lurk around your manuscripts like some sort of Mr. Spizz? Why can’t you leave the poor pages alone?

I wish I could get it right the first time, but I’m not that smart, and I find that with each pass I find a way to pair up sympathetic ideas and images, or events and emotional responses, or improve the pace and crack of the dialog, and so much more. There are infinite improvements I can make to each book. We all have “blind spots” when we write—especially in the beginning when I’m just desperately trying to get the narrative action of the story to reveal itself. Once I get that physical surface of the story set, then the rewrites are just me spelunking Oh, look. The Gantos boy gave me a nosebleed, which only makes sense if you've read DEAD END IN NORVELT, and even then, only a little. But here's to nosebleeds. between each word, each thought, each crack in the narrative as I begin to layer in vertical depth to the action, themes, characters and décor. I love finding all the words that play hide and seek with me. 

What do you hope the first line of your obituary reads?

 “We think he is dead. But it is hard to tell as his books live on, and he always said he would run away some day and hide between the pages dressed in a costume of odd punctuation while crouching behind a shrubbery. “No one will ever find me,” he boasted. Thus far, those who know him are satisfied with this outcome.”

For more about the great Jack Gantos, please visit his website.

Here's an interview on Seven Impossible Things.

And a video on journaling, which is a big part of his writing process.