Stories found and made: The difference between fact and fiction

shark-coverorientationWhere do stories come from? One of my favorite topics when speaking to readers is where writers get their ideas and how to turn ideas into stories.

An incident from your life is fact. It’s not a story, but just the start of one. If you stick to the facts, it’s creative nonfiction — fact given shape and voice. If you embroider it, reshape it, take it flying, then it’s fiction.

Before I wrote The Mermaid Game: A summer short story, I wrote Shark and Minnow: A summer memoir, a nonfiction essay about sisters at the beach, a boy next door, and a shark found in the shallows. This telling is as true as my faulty memory can make it.

Read it with The Mermaid Game to see where the story and essay converge and diverge — the blend between fact and fiction. Both involve children at the beach who make  startling discoveries in the waves, but the stories part ways. I like to think that both are the truth — Shark and Minnow is fact, but The Mermaid Game is the different kind of truth that can be found in fiction.

Nonfiction: Shark and Minnow: A summer memoir

Fiction: The Mermaid Game: A summer short story


New Website Look

girl and treeI spent far too long making a new header illustration for my site. I was aiming for a more flexible design that works for both middle grade and picture book writing. The color palette was inspired by my writer friend Colby Marshall. Colby has color-grapheme synthesia, like the main character of her much-praised new thriller Color Blind. While Dr. Jenna Ramey is a forensic psychiatrist who uses her unique way of interpreting the world to help solve crimes, Colby was kind enough to answer me when I demanded to know what color I am. She said periwinkle, and that color dominated this twilight design.

Note that the trees in the design are still American beeches — the same kind of tree that stars in Deadwood, although these are a little more at peace. Please let me know what you think.

Champion Tree Hunting

Novice Champion Tree Hunting

Earlier this month I visited Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA, and acquired a new hobby. I was with my kids so I spent nearly as much time in the gift shop as in the fabulous treehouses, and I picked up a copy of Big Trees of Pennsylvania. Tyler Arboretum is home to quit a few Champion Trees — the largest of their kind in Pennsylvania, including one of the largest PA trees of any kind — a mammoth tulip poplar (Liriondendron tulipifera) 133 feet tall.

I missed that tree while climbing Tyler’s gorgeous treehouses and coaxing my youngest daughter to keep walking, but now I’m planning to visit and document more of Pennsylvania’s biggest trees, as tracked by 

What makes a Champion Tree? Trees are tracked by species and accrue points as follows:

Trunk circumference: Measured 4.5 feed about the ground level, one point accorded per inch.

Height: One point per foot, measured with a clinometer, hand level, or range finder.

Crown spread: 1/4 point per foot of the average between the smallest and widest crown spread.

It’s hard to recognize a Champion just by looking because they are species-specific. The largest tree in Pennsylvania overall is a Mercersburg American Sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) with a whopping 529 points, but the largest crabapple is only 84. So I’m not going to be identifying them, unless I get extremely lucky, but looking at them in their environment.

My daughter at the State Champion Red Oak at Haverford College

Visit my tree blog, for:

Champion trees »

Arborglyphs »

Trees that look like people »

Return to the scene of inspiration

Deadwood and arborglyphs I took my new copy of Deadwood out to the tree that first sparked the idea. It’s a gorgeous old American beech (Fagus grandifolia) in Wynnewood Valley Park, a small wooded park near my home in Lower Merion, PA, that I spotted when I was brainstorming for a new novel idea four years ago. The arborglyphs in the bark were both interesting and disturbing, and I started to wonder what kind of magic they could introduce. That seed of an idea grew into Deadwood.

Now Deadwood is out as an ebook and paperback from Spencer Hill Press, and the book and the tree have finally met, leaf to leaf.

Read the whole story behind the story >>

Learn more about tree carvings (arborglyphs) >>

Buy Deadwood >>

On Childish Things

This week there was another controversy where a columnist criticized adult readers of YA, believing that they should feel ashamed for reading books marketed to teens.

So what would she think of me? I write and read middle-grade novels and picture books.

The answer is that I don’t care. Someone more brilliant has said what I think:

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

― C.S. Lewis

This isn’t exactly true of me. When I was ten, I read fairy tales and I wasn’t ashamed. But when I was thirty, I saw adults reading Harry Potter, and I thought they should be.

Then I read it too.

Read the rest of the post on Operation Awesome >>

Live tweeting the BookCon #WeNeedDiverseBooks Panel

One of the privileges of attending Book Expo America on May 31 was attending the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel. The event was covered widely by the media, but at the time, I wa able to peck out some live tweets for those who didn’t attend the panel. Here’s a selection.

Notes on a Diversity Hashtag: Project Mayhem

Listening to #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I realized the conversation wasn’t about me. And neither are the books I want to read.

When the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign began through the work of 22 writers and bloggers, I was enthusiastic. I was long familiar with the issue through Cindy Pon and Malindo Lo’s Diversity in YA campaign, and I had tried to populate my middle-grade novels with diverse characters. So I joined the conversation.

Read more on Project Mayhem >>

The Story I Found in the Woods: Earth Day inspiration for Deadwood

When I’m brainstorming stories, my favorite thing to do is go for a walk in the woods. That’s how I came across the inspiration for Deadwood. I was looking for ideas, and I found a tree.

I had just read Well Witched by Frances Hardinge and Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones, and I wanted to write a book like that – about ordinary kids who stumble upon magic and danger in the real world and have to figure out how to set things right.

All I needed was a unique kind of magic that I hadn’t seen before.

On other days, I had already noticed that just about every beech tree I ever saw was carved with messages, and I always wondered about the people who put them there. Were they still alive? Did the messages of love stay true? Did KT still love JB? At the same time, carving a tree is harming a living thing. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the trees.

In celebration of Earth Day, read more on Spencer Hill Middle Grade site >>