Author Archives: Elizabeth Duncan

The Magic of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking

On a recent trip through Scandinavia, I committed myself to reading the works of Scandinavian children’s authors. I wanted to reread the books that I had loved as a girl, to view them from the perspective of a writer and to read them in their native lands. I delved into the haunting fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, the whimsical odd adventures and wisdom of Tove Jansen’s Moonintrolls and the very dark adventures of Astrid Lindgren’s Lionheart Brothers. But the best part of my reading journey through Scandinavia came from becoming reacquainted with Pippilotta Comestibles Windowshade Curlymint Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking.

I loved Pippi Longstocking. I wanted to have red, wild hair, to live alone in my own wacky home, to create my own rules and (most importantly) to have a pet monkey. All along, I knew in my heart I was just another Annika, a regular, good girl… but wouldn’t it be fun if I was different!

With a statue of Astrid Lindgren at Junibaken, a museum that celebrates children’s literature in Stockholm, Sweden.

Pippi has enchanted millions of children like me over the decades since she was created in Sweden in 1945. Forever nine years old, she sprang to life in the post-WWII world and has been shocking the world ever since. Pippi is still wildly popular in Scandinavia and is one of their most notable literary exports. Astrid Lindgren is a national hero and is even pictured on the 20 krona banknote. A children’s author… imagine that!

Pippi is quite the child. She turns the tables on bullies by hanging them from a tree, terrifies policemen who want to put her in a children’s home, refuses to learn her “pluttification tables,” rolls out her biscuits on the floor and heroically rescues children from a burning building. The fantastical is presented as commonplace and the world Pippi lives in is magical. The books are funny, irreverent and entirely enjoyable.

I realize that my girlhood admiration of Pippi was because she was a person who could do anything and was never bound by the rules that govern everyone else. The books are anti-authoritarian, with an undercurrent of feminism. It turns out that Pippi Longstocking often ends up on banned book lists because of these themes. One of the hallmarks of her character is that she never conforms to societal norms and that the adult world is held up to scorn and critical evaluation.

Pippi is inspirational to me as a writer because she breaks with conventional ideas about how children, especially girls, should behave. Re-meeting Pippi made me want to write children’s books that make them imagine something different from what they think they know. Pippi Longstocking may not have the same effect on the current generation of young American readers that she had on me. But today’s girls and boys need to have characters like her to love. They deserve characters who can help them look at their world with a more discerning eye and give them the courage to act in new ways. We need to make sure that our children have their own “Pippi” to encourage them to have fun, to be a bit more daring and to have faith in their own abilities.

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My NaNoWriMo

“You’re a WINNER!” I entered my official work count into the NaNoWriMo website on November 30 and was treated to triumphant music and a blinking WINNER message.

I had done something I was sure I could not do. I had written whole novel in one month.

Friends in the writing community had participated in National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, which  is a national movement that challenges writers to complete a 50,000 word novel during November. I listened to them and shook my head. No, I write too slowly, my ideas don’t arrive fully formed and I get off-track too easily. After all, it took me over two years to complete my 40,000 word middle grade novel and it still isn’t quite what it should be.

No, I could never do NaNo.

It was in mid- October that I wrote and rewrote a sentence in my new novel. I had been working on the sentence for days. I realized that I hadn’t moved my book forward in over two weeks. I wished that I could free myself up from the constant perseveration that dogged my writing. My need to make things perfect before I moved on. My discouraging experience of spending so much time on an interesting scene that even I was bored.

People around me were deciding whether or not to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. I had never really considered it. Dejected, I thought, why not give it a try?

I set aside my current novel and spent the rest of October outlining a book that I had thought about writing for years. I needed to have a whole new book for  this frantic, blast-out-the-words NaNo style of writing.

To complete a 50,000 word novel in a month, I needed to write 1,667 words a day. I am certain that I had never written 1,667 words in one day. In fact, there had been days when my daily word count was in the teens. I usually wrote a couple days in a row, then took a break for a day or two. There would be none of that with NaNo. It would be 1,667 words every day or failure.

But I didn’t want to fail. As I prepared, I realized that I wanted, more than anything, to write a whole novel in a month. Just to prove to myself that I could do it.

I woke up early on November 1st. I honestly had no idea how long it would take me to write 1,667 words. I figured it could be anywhere from an hour to four hours. I had set aside the entire day.

I set an alarm for one hour. I started to write. When the hour was up, I had written about 1,000 words. At the end of the next hour, I almost had 2,000 words. Only 48,000 more words and 29 more days to go. And it was just 8:30 am. I entered my word count into the NaNoWriMo website and went about my day, just like usual.

Except that I thought about my story and characters all day long.

The next day, I knew exactly what I was going to write. I’d move the story forward by writing the scene that I had thought about the day before. And I did.

So it went. Every day I’d write, two to three hours, then I’d imagine all day long what could happened next. The next day, I’d consult and revise my outline, read the last page that I had completed the day before and just write. All I needed was to find two hours to spend on my novel, one way or another, before I went to bed. Soon enough I had written close to 200 pages and was drawing the story to an end.

Doing NaNoWriMo felt like being on a long and challenging hike that took me to a place I had never been before. Sometimes, I was astounded by my own ability and energized by being in this unexplored territory. And sometimes I felt lost and exhausted and didn’t want to take another step. But like the hiker, I continued to put one foot in front of another and kept on going. When I was finished, I was thrilled to have had the adventure and wanted to do it again.

Participating in NaNo taught me that I could write faster. I needed to learn that if I felt paralyzed, I needed to keep going and not to stop. Sooner or later, I found, I could write my way out of stuck.

Realistically, I only wrote a DRAFT of a 50,000+ word young-adult historical fiction novel about a young woman and her friends growing up during World War II. It certainly is not a polished word-perfect story, at least not yet. But, I have something, something large and complete, a book with a beginning, middle and end that embodies the story I want to tell.

There are parts of the novel that are just what I want them to be. There are other parts that need a lot of work. And there are entire parts missing that still need to be written. But what I wrote for NaNoWriMo in November, 2016 was a whole book.

I don’t know what I will do with the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I may decide to leave it in its draft stage forever while I focus on other projects. Or I may decide to recommit to it and do the hard work to revise it and bring it to completion.

Either way, I’m glad that I did it.

As November drew to a close and Thanksgiving arrived, I found myself brimming with thanks that someone out there had the idea to challenge writers to complete a 50,000 word novel in one month. The experience set me on a better course as a writer and taught me lessons about myself that I could not have learned any other way. NaNo on!

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Bedtime Story


blog-graphicAs a writer, I hold tight to the belief that the stories we tell our children help shape them and teach important lessons. The ways that adults and children share the stories- bedtime and naptime stories, post-recess read-alouds, road trip audio-books or the retelling of family lore, influence their lives. Stories and the way they are told help children know who they are and who they can become.

A Memory:
We were snuggled together on the yellow flocked sofa. Steve, wearing his spaceship pajamas to Dad’s left, Martha clad in frilly yellow babydolls on his lap and me, leaning in on his right, wore a pink acetate nightie. The new baby Paul had finally stopped screaming from his daily bout of evening colic and he lay peacefully in Mom’s arms. His angelic presence defied his rather loud and demanding daytime personality.

Mom had settled into the rocking chair and had closed her eyes, wearing weariness, but also contentment, on her face. Dad smelled of pipe smoke and wore his plaid smoking jacket- a robe-like wrap with satin lapels and deep pockets. We settled comfortably in… it was time for our bedtime story.

“Chug-a-rum,” croaked Grandfather Frog. Dad’s rich baritone brought the character to life. Old Mother West Wind’s children, the Merry Little Breezes, flitted through the moralistic tales and we lived vicariously in the land “when the world was young and all.”

Dad’s voice changed with each new character. His theatrical nature, subdued at his 50’s style doctor’s office, found a perfect stage in the well-lit living room of the little suburban house.

The antique pages of the book, shared from Dad’s own childhood, took us all on an adventure, to a place where problems were huge, but it all worked out in the end. In the course of a chapter, wrongs were set right and errant creatures got what they so deeply deserved.

That memory defies the darker times that lay ahead. Even then, I knew that life’s challenges were never summed up neat and tidy at the end of a chapter. As the family ventured beyond the familiar vistas of the Smiling Pool and the Laughing Brook for the Great World Beyond, life became much more complicated.

For now, I bask in the warm glow of that living room, in that atmosphere of love and imagination, where Reddy Fox is out-tricked and Hoppity learns a valuable lesson, where mothers snuggle their perfect babies and where little heads fall comfortably against a Daddy’s broad chest.

I believe that the lessons my siblings and I learned so long ago on that couch infused each of us with the belief that, no matter how bad it seemed, it could perhaps, all work out in the end. And from that brief time we spent snuggled on that yellow couch, we also know the mystery of love and what being a family can be.

As children’s book writers, what we do is important. We should persevere with our calling and tell the stories that will influence the lives of children and their families

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Insight and Inspiration from Student Writers

Blog GraphicI have the opportunity to facilitate the lunchtime Creative Writing Club at the elementary school where I teach. Student creative writers give up their recess and lunchtime with classmates to come and be part of our writing community. These students are motivated, bright and eager. They are students who recognized writing as a way to express themselves. They love to write and thrive in this situation that encourages and supports their efforts to use writing to tell a story they need to tell.

I have gained insight and inspiration into my own writing by working alongside these young artists as they hone their skills and grow into the writers of the future.

• Writers write. They write a lot. No one can be a writer without filling up a lot of pages and spending time and energy writing.

• Sometimes the deepest and most brilliant ideas are found in incomplete sentences and misspelled words that speak to the essence of the story.

• You have to tie everything together. A story that is all middle isn’t much of a story. You must have a beginning and an end.

• Imagination is the best guide. Although some accuracy is important, don’t let the facts get in the way and obscure your story.

• Use adjectives and action verbs. Don’t use adverbs. Use the very best words you know and don’t ever worry about spelling- you can figure how to spell words later.

• Sometimes you have to slog through a lot of boring stuff to get to the great stuff.

• Some stories don’t need to be taken to completion. They just don’t turn out to be interesting or meaningful. So, let them go and put energy into something that you want to finish.

• Writers really, really hate to revise, but they have to do it anyway.

• Try to find new ways to say something. A lot of people have the same ideas… but it matters that you say the idea in your own way.

• Play with emotion- make others cry or laugh or gasp. You know it’s good if your teacher gets the shivers.

• Writers have to share their work. Creative writing is meant to be shared.

• If people don’t understand something that you have written, you need to listen to them. They want to help you make your work stronger and work for everyone, not just you.

• The best writers are the best readers. Reading is the springboard for writing.

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“Dear Author…” Advice to Middle Grade Writers from 5th Grade Students

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What advice do you have for authors who write books for you? I posed this question to my gifted and high ability 5th graders- and was not at all surprised that they were eager to offer guidance and insight to middle grade authors.

I have had the opportunity to teach this group of students for the past five years, meeting them when they were sweet 1st graders, wide-eyed at the prospect of all that school offered. Now, sophisticated and school savvy, they have developed into thoughtful, passionate learners and readers. Here are some highlights of their responses.

Dear Author….

• Put lots of emotion and love into your books. I want deep meaning in a book. -Kylah

• I like to read about what happens in the real world. My world. -Kylah

• Give me action and horror! –Tyler

• Don’t force your creativity. Just write what you love and we’ll feel your love and love it too. -Nicolas

• I love descriptive language—I want you to make me feel like I am right there. -Nicolas

• Have the book teach me life lessons like “don’t give up” or “you can overcome evil” or “be nice to your family.” -Nicolas

• I read novels so that I can have a doorway into stories and situations that are extraordinary. -Bennett

• I want to be sucked into the story as soon as possible. When I’m done, I want the book to be so good that I feel sad when I am finished. -Bennett

• Write about other cultures. We need people to understand each other better. -Ella

• Fill your book with emotion. The best part of a book is the emotion. Whatever you write… realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy or something else, it’s the emotion that makes it a good book. -Ella

• I want to be able to put myself in the story and to imagine the characters as my friends. I like a book where you get attached to the characters and wonder what you would do in the same situation. –Quinn

• I like complicated books; books that make you understand something totally new. A book can teach me that there are different people in the world and many different ways to live and solve problems. -Talile

• Make some characters bad and some good and some a little of both, but have at least one character that everyone loves. -Elly

• I want a book to be so descriptive that it makes a movie in my head. I want to get sucked in… -Elly

• Make the book really, really, really, really long. -Ezekiel

• I like books about people who are not like me. I want to understand other people and books help me to do that. -Ezekiel

• It doesn’t matter if the book is set in the past, present or the future. What is important is how the characters figure out what is around them and what they have to deal with. -Ezekiel

• Don’t make the books for older kids so much harder to read than the books for younger kids. Just make the situations more complicated and interesting. -Ben

• Do NOT start your book slow. Don’t be dull. Don’t make the book too long. Long isn’t necessarily better-Ben

• Write a series. Then I’ll read your books for a long, long time and never want them to end. -Ben

• I want you to write books that tell about others and life all around the world. I want to read about characters that are kind, helpful, hopeful and who never give up. -Ximena

• I read to learn about how I can improve myself and become a better person. A good character is a better teacher than a long lecture. -Ximena

• Don’t write to me like I am a kid. Write to me like I am a person. -Marcos

• I like to read novels because I like to get lost in adventure and action and EXPLOSIONS. I want emotion, destruction and suspense. Make your books exciting. -Tai

• I hate “happily ever after endings because they are extremely cliché. Make it real. -Tai

• I like very long books because I want to feel like the book will never end. -Tai

• One word: Magic. Fill your book with magic. All kinds of magic. -Sasha

• I read so I can enter and explore a world other than my own. I like to learn about history through books, so I can imagine what it was really like in the past. -Henry

• I read to escape the world. Make me imagine a whole new world. -Rowan

• Don’t make the characters stupid. -Rowan

• I know you don’t want to hear this, but graphic novels are the best. -Ahmed

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Writing Historical Fiction: Balancing Historical Accuracy with a Compelling Story

04b6989eb2113beb1449373af2a2f16bby E. E. Duncan

Many years ago, I began my first novel about a medieval stonemason. I planned to send this fervent, soulful youth on a long journey to Paris to help build Notre Dame Cathedral.

In the first paragraph, Christophe picked up his… thing that cut stone… and climbed aboard his… wagon or whatever they called it… and said goodbye… au revoir or did they say something else so long ago… to his mother…Mama?  Mere? Maman?… and headed toward… the hills or mountains or fields or maybe vineyards… toward Paris.

Poor Christophe never got to Paris or even out of the first paragraph. I, on the other hand, spent the next year researching. The next iteration of my first paragraph read like a Wikipedia article on medieval France. Christophe didn’t even make an appearance. Whatever story I had imagined was buried by an avalanche of highly accurate information at the expense of any characterization or plot.

This, I realized, was harder than I thought it would be.

To tell any story requires a strong sense of time and place. In historical fiction for young readers, accurate details about the time period paint the backdrop for the story to unfold. We are exposing our readers to a narrative through the lens of history and creating a vivid sense of the unique circumstances that surround our characters. It is important the character is a product of the historical setting and that the characters interact with historical details.

But, the story itself must shine through. We are not writing a textbook, we are writing fiction. Readers love historical fiction because it makes history interesting and personal. The best part of writing historical fiction is taking your readers on a trip back in time. Readers need to feel they have been entertained with a compelling story and that they have learned something as well.

How does an author balance historical accuracy with a compelling story?

  • Writers must feel comfortable with the time period through reading and research. The author must have an inexhaustible curiosity about the time period and a mission to get the facts right.
  • The story needs to provide ways for the character to struggle with both the historical circumstances that the setting provides, as well as internal issues that constitute characterization.
  • Because we are writing historical fiction, we have the freedom to stray beyond what is known. It takes a leap of imagination to recreate the past, as well as poetic license to keep our readers interest in the past alive.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes. The author cannot know everything and will inevitably make errors. We should strive for accuracy, but sometimes we need to make our best-informed guess and move on.
  • We don’t have to include everything we know in the book. Some fascinating details or related events may need to be left in your notes, because they are important to the time, but not to your story.

I have read that the historical fiction writer needs to find the “story” in history. We are called to transform information into an exciting true-to-period story. We want the people, places and events of the part to fascinate our young readers and we owe it to our readers to get the story right.

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Welcome

The first Story Spinners’ blog post is coming soon. Come back and visit us again.

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