Category Archives: Karen McChesney

SOWING STORY SEEDS FOR KIDS

Her smile is as wide and natural as the 103-acre farm in the background. Clad in a flannel shirt, the woman tells viewers, “Alright, well, we’re inside the tractor now.” After she introduces the two cats watching from outside, she holds up her book cover, THE WISH AND THE PEACOCK; she opens it and announces, “Chapter one, hide-and-seek…” pauses, then reads, Finding lost things on the farm is the world’s hardest game of hide-and-seek. I’ve been searching for Dad’s favorite shovel for weeks.

Meet farmer and children’s book author, Wendy Swore. For the next 15 minutes, Swore reads the chapter, acting out sentences with gestures and animated faces, and changing her voice for each character. Viewers get acquainted with 12-year-old Paige, who lost her father and wants to save her family farm, located on an Idaho reservation. Swore knows her setting. For the past 20 years, she has lived and farmed on the Sho-Ban Reservation, where her husband and five children were born and raised.

Sponsored by her publisher, Shadow Mountain Publishing, Swore’s online read-aloud isn’t just for kids. “They’re for everyone stuck in quarantine!” says Swore. I recently interviewed her about her books and how she juggles farming and writing.

Was farming part of your childhood?

My dad was a crop duster and we moved all around. I got to sit on his lap while he flew his crop duster plane. That was my introduction to agriculture.

What is your first memory of writing?

In elementary school, I had a teacher who was extraordinary. She used to tell us things like, start writing about the color brown without using the color brown. As a fourth grader, that was really mind-blowing! She told me, ‘you’re really good, you should really write more’. I wrote about a Hunter Cheetah. My teacher made me feel like it was as amazing as I thought it was.

When did you start writing professionally?

About 15 years ago, my husband said, ‘you should write a story about the farm’. I sat down and wrote a 90,000 word young adult (YA) novel about this farm thing. He said, ‘no, I meant a little flier-coloring book thing to hand to kids.’ I said, ‘too late’, and I’ve been writing ever since! No one will ever see the 90,000. It was just for fun.

You kept writing. What motivated you?

I went to a writer’s conference and suddenly, my world opened. On a farm, I’m totally by myself, especially during off-season. And…when I started writing A MONSTER LIKE ME, my youngest was 10 years old. He would come home from school and ask, ‘do you have the next chapter ready’? He liked finding typos and wanted to see the screen.

Describe your writing rituals or habits.

I write while sitting on a ball and plug in earbuds, because I have narcolepsy. I don’t struggle with it while farming, but as soon as I stop moving. The ball lets me move around and helps me stay awake while writing; and, I listen to movie soundtracks without words.

Did the Covid pandemic affect your writing in any way?

My son who has Asperger’s wasn’t able to do his schoolwork, unless I was with him all the time. My writing time went out the window and pushed the writing of my new novel into farming seasion, so I was trying to write and farm at the same time. We do 12-hour farming days. When I only had one hour, I needed to get into the zone fast. I used music to pull me into that (mental) place that I need to be to write.

Five kids, plus farming, organizing a popular pumpkin patch and farmers markets… Egads, how do you make time to write?

I call winter my writing season. I average a minimum of half-hour a day and a couple weekends a month. If I only write in winter, then I’m having to re-learn it. So, I do a little in summer. But, my days are very full, so it is difficult to write for long periods. Early in the season is easier, because I can go out and water, then go home and write for several hours. If there is a day when I am not wiped out from farming, I go next door to my best friend’s house on Friday afternoon and we might write till one in the morning. Next door for us means half-a-mile away! We sit next to each other, so we’re totally absorbed in our imaginary world; we stop and brainstorm. It’s fun.

Do you think about your characters and plot while farming?

It’s a creative outlet that can go with me into the field. If I am farming with my children, I’ll say, ‘what do you think about a character who is like this. Then I ask, what do you think is the worst thing that could happen to this character. If I am thinking of a certain part of my story, I’ll say, so this is the situation, this is the character, how do you think this character can get from point A to B’.

You have published two middle grade (MG) novels. Do you have a favorite?

Each one satisfies a different need. A MONSTER LIKE ME was me as a child, a kid with hemangioma (a golf ball-sized protrusion on my face) who was bullied by kids and adults. I like to ask what-if questions when I write. A MONSTER LIKE ME was born because I wondered, what if I believed the people who called me a monster? THE WITCH AND THE PEACOCK was meaningful, because it captures what our life is  like now. Most farms around us have gone to houses. I needed a happy ending.

Congratulations on your new MG coming out in May. How is it different from your others?

STRONG LIKE THE SEA is my first contemporary MG; it’s not directly based on my world. The main character likes codes and figuring things out. That’s the furthest from me right now.

Any advice for writers?

Writing is hard! You have to love the things you’re writing about. I’m interested in people you might think are broken, but you get to know them and there’s more to them. I want kids to learn to love themselves. Even when you don’t have time to write, you can write stories in your head for when you do have the time.

Note: Original prose and photos were printed with the permission of Wendy Swore.

 

 

 

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Facts From a Week in the Life of a Writer

I am ready for a game of Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy! Perhaps, I’ll actually get a few answers correct. No, on the other hand, I have no need for a competition today. After all, trying to get published is plenty of competition for me. I would rather brew up some tea and share a cup of facts and findings from my past week of research for my new young adult novel, a nonfiction kids article, and a picture book. Oh, how lucky I am to be a perennial student, day after day!

Enjoy! (These are not in any particular order):

  • In the 1960’s, farm kids who ran away from home were called, “field rabbits,” because they roamed the roads with no attachment to their parents.
  • According to an FBI report, in 1967, there was a record number of teenage runaways in the U.S. Some 90,000.
  • The Beatles hit, “She’s Leaving Home,” is based on the true story of 17-year-old runaway Melanie Coe. In the 1997 biography PAUL MCCARTNEY: MANY YEARS FROM NOW, McCartney recalled, “We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found…there were a lot of those at the time, and that was enough to give us a story line. So, I started to get the lyrics – she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up. It was rather poignant.”
  • A high school freshman in California has a collection of more than 3,000 library cards.
  • The first library cards were probably issued at membership libraries, 18th Century organizations where members paid fees (and sometimes books from their own collection) in exchange for the right to check out materials.
  • Crows have a unique way of marking the location of their snacks. They don’t bury food; they cover it with a leaf, twig, grass or other item.
  • Ever since their 2020 audition on “America’s Got Talent” TV show, Brothers Gage have made harmonica hip for teens. 15-year-old Brody and 17-year-old Alex have both been playing since they were five. The harmonica-playing, dancing duo perform at events and school pep rallies around Los Angeles.
  • Some researchers believe that in the 1970’s, teens were running TO something, such as communes, freedom, cults, etc., whereas, today, they are running AWAY from things, such as difficult home life.
  • A strong simple first sentence in a YA: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.” WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN A CASTLE by Shirley Jackson.
  • A strong simple character name in a YA: Uncle Big. THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson, also author of I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN.
  • A beautiful turning point in a picture book: “Feeling unsure, the girl thought the best thing was to put her hear in a safe place. Just for the time being. So, she put it in a bottle and hung it around her neck. And that seemed to fix things…at first.” THE HEART AND THE BOTTLE by Oliver Jeffers, also author of THE GREAT PAPER CAPER and HOW TO CATCH A STAR.
  • In the early- to mid-20th century, most New York City libraries had live-in superintendents. They were known as the families that lived behind the stacks! And, all their kids had 24-7 access to books. One girl used to have sleepovers and in 1965, went on to hold her wedding in the library.
  • Early library cards were also called “tickets.”
  • In 1886, a library card for the Lowell City Library in Massachusetts stated, “Marking of all sorts on books is punishable by statute with fine and imprisonment, and directors will prosecute.”
  • In 1924, Oakland Free Library (CA) issued two different cards: One was “good for any book.” The other stated, “No fiction shall be issued.”
  • Darby Free Library, which started in PA in 1743, is America’s oldest public library.

By the way, a photographer and journalist came up with the idea of Trivial Pursuit while playing Scrabble. Photographer Chris Haney was always open about being a high school dropout, often joking, “It was the biggest mistake I ever made. I should have done it earlier!” The board game artwork was done by 18-year-old Michael Wurstlin.

And, in case you’re wondering… the word trivia is a derivative of trivium. The origin of trivium is, place three roads meet. Oops, I forgot to share: Peril is a synonym for jeopardy.

Hmm, maybe I am ready for questions. Game on! If my answer is wrong and I get the gong, I’ll simply say, “I Should Have Known That!” (a board game for young adults) and brew up another cup of tea.

 

 

 

 

 

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I WRITE, BECAUSE…

I write because it’s my

rock,

church,

wrinkles,

pain,

loudest laugh,

amid deep doubt

on mornings when I’m convinced the birds are singing,

“scrap it, stick with vacuuming.”

Second chance,

even when revision and I aren’t getting along.

Need for risks,

such fun to throw terrible twists at my characters.

Addiction to curiousity

and what, where, when, why,

by the way, how the heck did my research lead to the story of the chef who made the world’s largest dumpling,

and then on to 10 synonyms for said

that I’ll delight in using way too many times.

Decisions,

as complex as Colorado weather

and a one word sentence.

Seeing through lotsa lenses,

each a chance to make metaphors,

as like

and like as.

One what if after what if,

navigating the creative mess I’ve made.

Commitment to writing The End.

Reminder to trust

and hope,

oh, please, may my 10 years of revising

90,000 words make some sense!

I admit, it’s often my desperate attempt to whittle, whittle away at a chunk of wood

seeking the perfect knot

that I want to sand, buff, stain,

repeat;

and often, it’s a return to my rebellious teen,

sneaking up the stairs after curfew

with secrets of my doings deep in my Levi’s pocket;

and often, it’s my science lab,

experimenting with wit,

but, ending up with the same result,

me laughing at my same corny ideas.

Raw truth,

much, much better than any mirror.

Every wee fear,

including those I haven’t met.

Pillow and blanket,

especially when I want to hide from characters that I can’t bear to inform:

“I don’t know if you would laugh or cry over this matter.”

Giddy childhood,

when my four brothers and I wrapped towels around our necks

and raced our bikes two miles to the public pool,

competing all day for the biggest cannon ball splash

and finding enough coins on the concrete to buy Baby Ruth’s and lemon drops.

Freedom,

flying down a mountain on my bicycle at 40 mph,

hearing only air,

only!

Tuner,

honing in on how-to’s,

like my character’s nervous habit,

or, whether she should whine, sigh or snicker.

Adrenaline rush,

when rarely, oh so rarely,

six sentences in a row,

flow,

flow,

as if my character is in charge.

Admission

to the humbling fact,

yes, my characters will lead,

if you would listen,

they’d love to whisper:

“Get your ego out of the way, god damnit!”

Shower,

making sure I scrub deep, bid farewell to the filth and start all over.

Challenge

that wakes, sparks and jests me,

like when I hide dark chocolate in the freezer,

yet, keep avoiding, avoiding

till I must have a bite,

and then, you know what happens next,

I eat the whole bar!

Shovel,

reminding me: dig up, dig up, dig up the muck,

more,

more,

because, beneath is the real stuff, THE story,

arriving at an unexpected reality sign:

“welcome to the story you never knew you were telling!”

My rescue crew,

always ready with a

hug,

wisdom,

feedback,

nudge,

prayer,

a plethora of ideas,

edits,

commas,

periods.

Fresh baked paper

just out of the oven,

ready for my pen to

dabble,

let go,

forgive,

say hello,

how are ya,

goodbye

to mom, dad, brothers, best buds.

Stories

I write,

because,

I always have.

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ACCOUNTABILITY: A WRITER’S BEST FRIEND

“I have to get back to work. Goodbye.”

That’s what I say if I’m talking to someone, and it’s time to show up in my studio and write. The time is blocked out on my calendar, like any meeting or appointment. I got the idea from a writer friend while sharing our routines – and how we show up to our writer job.

Oh, the tricks I play on myself! But, they work. Well, okay, not always – especially during this pandemic, when my teaching and personal schedule are topsy-turvy, and my self-motivation is wavering. But, I keep trying. While sipping morning coffee, I turn on my studio light and open the curtains, so my office shouts, “I’m ready and waiting”. I set my alarm for writing sessions. I put my cell phone in another room, so I can’t hear the buzz of incoming texts or calls (which are perfect distractions when I’m stuck on a scene that I’ve re-written a dozen times!).

Unfortunately, the demons of distraction and procrastination still like to hang out in my office. Ugh! Good news is, I know my own worst enemies really well. Gradually, I’m learning to negotiate with them, so, my favorite co-worker, accountability, can kick them out and pull up a chair!

Here’s what accountability and I have been up to – and what’s really working:

Setting a timer. I try to follow a rigid routine during my scheduled writing time: For writing, I set a timer for one hour, take a 10-15 minute break, repeat. For research, I set a timer for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Monday accountability group. Every Monday, I do an email check-in with a group of kid-lit writers. We submit our goals for the week and report briefly on progress made the previous week. Wow! Keeps me honest and realistic! In our brief format, we manage to celebrate, challenge, and remind each other to keep plugging away, and that it’s okay to take a break.

Text-writing. Once a week, I have a writing “date” with another children’s writer. We text a few minutes before our start time to share what we’re working on or what we want to accomplish. Usually, we do two 45-minute rounds. Then, we briefly check in. We’re always amazed at how much we get accomplished in such a short time.

SCBWI Rocky Mountain Chapter critique group. Once a month, my SCBWI critique group meets in person. We’re the Story Spinners and we’ve been meeting monthly for 20 years. We email our work in advance, then, when we meet, each writer has 20 minutes for their work to be critiqued. When members don’t submit work, they can use their time to update the group on projects, invite brainstorming or advice on a project, share notes from workshops/classes, or etc. They’ve helped me think through SO many critical bits and pieces, such as how to end a pb or write a hook for a YA synopsis, a book title, an angle for a nonfiction article, and the list goes on. We hold separate meetings, as needed, to critique a member’s full manuscript.

Story Spinners are my rocks! Without their passion, drive, support, professionalism, desire to learn, confidence, nudges, wisdom and wit, I would have given up on my projects a long time ago.

SCBWI British Isles North East critique group. While living short term in England (twice), I met weekly with the same critique group. Through email, we continue to: exchange same genre manuscripts for overall feedback, check in bimonthly on current projects. We’re considering holding FaceTime meetings, as needed. They, too, are my rocks, my support group!

Oops! My alarm is going off. I have to get back to work on revising my YA. Goodbye!

 

Writing is hard, hard, messy work. Going out and doing talks and signing books is all wonderful, but a writer has to return home and go back to work.   

Julia Alvarez, author of AFTERLIFE, BEFORE WE WERE FREE, ALREADY A BUTTERFLY

 

 

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REVISING TEDIOUSLY, ONE TINY TWIG AT TIME

by Karen Deger McChesney

I’m still pinching myself! I recently witnessed a bird building its nest. A dream come true! I was enjoying my morning ritual of sipping coffee and bird watching…and, there he was! A brownish finch with a one-inch twig in its cone-shaped beak, standing outside a birdhouse. I watched my fine-feathered friend retrieve twigs from the tall course grass and turn them this way and that to get them through the birdhouse hole. Incredibly tedious. Impossible. But, he did it. Magical! The most amazing moment was when he hopped out of the birdhouse with a different twig in his bill, laid it on the railing, flew off and retrieved a new one.

Re-decorating? I pictured him inside re-arranging twigs, over and over again. Good heaven, it’s like revising! One tiny twig at a time. Ironically, I arrived late to my revising that morning, because I was so enamored with the finch. I have been revising my first YA for what feels like forever. It’s one huge over-and-over-again. I don’t know what revision I am on. I don’t count anymore. I only countdown to my next self-imposed deadline, psych myself up, and mark the calendar with my next deadline, again and again.

Oh, it’s a grind. Some days, it’s the thickest, darkest molasses and feels like I am merely mucking around. Currently, I am deep in re-arranging – moving entire chapters from end to beginning and all over. It’s a messy experiment! But, alas, I am cutting paragraphs and entire pages that no longer move the story forward – and probably never did. I discovered that I was just in love with the words. Geesh!

Occasionally, I long for the adrenalin rush of writing, especially my first draft. But then, I am caught off guard. Suddenly, something jumps out and looks completely different or new, as if someone else wrote it. Odd. Exciting! I dive into re-building an entire scene, layer by layer, and uncover pieces that need a good polish. It’s fun, but very different than writing; it’s hard to explain. Lately, I think it’s me that is different. I come to the page differently. Maybe, maybe, I am learning the patience of the finch and finally, letting my characters spread their wings and fly higher. I hope. But, of course, I want to be done, already. Fiddlesticks! Enough of this nesting!

I keep wondering why the finch removed twigs. I suppose they didn’t fit the shape of his nest anymore. Hmmm… all I know is, thank you, little bird, for inspiring me to keep on building and re-shaping my story. I want to revise like a finch – slowly, relentlessly, routinely – and be okay with all the unraveling.

It’s work. It’s my job. And, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in The Big Magic, “…90 percent of the work is quite tedious…”

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