Author Archives: Elizabeth Duncan

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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