Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Love Researching Historical Fiction....Let Me Count the Ways

Recently, historical novelist and my good friend, Joyce Hostetter, posed these questions on her blog: “What makes research exciting for you?  What unexpected or particularly interesting forms has research taken for you recently?”

I took up your challenge, Joyce. Here are some answers from my research excursions:

Last year I interviewed Charles Jones, a light brown-skinned African American who grew up in Charlotte during the 40’s and became a part of the sit-in movement in the 60’s. With Caucasian ancestors in his family tree, he was personally familiar with the racial prejudices of 1950 and quoted this frequently heard maxim: “If you’re light it’s all right, if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re back get to the back.” Both he and his sister Eva helped me to think about the possible connections between Lillie, my light-skinned African American character, and Kate, the story's protagonist.

In February I interviewed Vermelle Ely and Price Davis at the South Ward Alumni House in Charlotte. Price grew up in Cherry, which is the neighborhood in which Lillie lived. Price recalled receiving "hand-me down" books from whites-only schools. The back covers were missing and the books had already been used by so many students that there wasn't a place for him to write his name. Vermelle shared incidents when she or friends chose to pass--while shopping or riding an elevator at Efird's department store, getting their hair done, or moving up to the front of a line at a store.

Several weeks ago I met Jerry Overman, a 92-year-old WWII and Korean war vet who had been interviewed in the Charlotte Observer. I discovered that he was born the same year as Kate’s father and he collaborated all of the dates that I had hypothetically constructed. Not only that, but he verified information about the draft, the Reserves and was an all-around, modern gentleman.

Today I spent two hours talking to Tommy (a former photographer for The Charlotte News) and Margaret Franklin, two native Charlotteans who graduated from the same high school as Kate’s sister Ginny. I had already spent time pouring over their annuals (yearbooks) trying to memorize hair styles, clothing, school activities, and the jargon their friends used when signing autographs. The Franklins shared memories of their hang-outs, the trouble they got into, and even some romances.

But the fun really started when Margaret pulled out her mother’s Ivey’s department store hatboxes and showed me the hats that her mother had worn. Then it hit me. My protagonist’s mother is a hatmaker. In my fictional world that I am creating, Kate’s mother could have created these hats!


Clippings from the Charlotte Observer from 1950 about bridge parties, debutante announcements, and invitations to Coca Cola parties; black and white photos of dances and cars…these are all the things that thrill the hearts of historical novelists.

Do you have enough answers, Joyce? Or do you need more?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Early Literacy!

My fourteen-month-old granddaughter, Caitlin Kasten, demonstrates two important components of early literacy: turning the pages and learning to "read" the pictures!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Thinking Out Loud on Paper

There are books that you read and wonder, "Why didn’t I think of this?"  Thinking out Loud on Paper: The Student Daybook as a Tool to Foster Learning   (Heinemann, 2008) is one of those books. 

Used in all grades, the daybook is a marvelous way to hook students in all subject areas to "think out loud" through writing. I resonate with the concept since it fits with my own experience as a writer. I remember things better when I write them down and I process my thoughts and experiences by writing about them (as readers of this blog know!). Now with my own daybook, I have a place to keep my random thoughts and jottings all in one place.

The book is co-authored by five members of the UNC Charlotte Writing Project. As such, each author has contributed his or her experiences with using daybooks personally and in the classroom. The result is an easy-to-read guide on how to implement daybooks. Chapters include how to organize, sustain, and assess the books; as well as the advantages and disadvantages of going digital.  

From the introductory chapter, the authors explain their thinking. "Daybooks have helped us foster ways of learning that allow students the space and freedom to be silly and messy, to be thinkers and writers just for the sake of thinking and writing, to be miners of their thoughts even if just to dig out a golden line from something that they read....The daybook breaks down the typical disconnect that occurs in schools: disconnects between theory and practice, between one grade and the next, between one subject and another, and between the way people really learn and how we often feel obligated to make our students learn in very specific and predetermined ways."  (p.1, 2)

This book takes the simple, ordinary composition book and elevates it to a position of central importance in the classroom. More than a journal, it not only is a way for students to record random thoughts which they might use in a poem, essay or story; but is also a place to store favorite quotes ("golden lines"),  new vocabulary words (which they pick and share with their peers), questions for book discussions, revision strategies,  focused quickwrites, maps of complex texts, metawriting musings, as well as "ordinary" writing assignments. 

One invaluable aspect of the daybook is how students reflect upon patterns and themes they discover in their own writing. As Karen Haag, one of the authors writes, “A key component of daybooks is self-assessment. By having their thinking in one central place, students can refer back to their ideas through the year. Writers look back over the pages and see progress…I ask my students to reflect on what is happening in their daybooks and document what they see. Students build this reflectiveness over time through daily, weekly, and quarterly assessments. These assessments become as important for growth as the work itself.” (p.85)

Using the daybook concept, teachers are creating creative and inquisitive writers.  As a result, these students go into standardized testing with confidence and smiles. “Becoming a writer and feeling the joy of writing is how we spend 99 percent of our time. Only 1 percent of our time is spent on the test—and in that time, we are showing them that they already know everything they need to know.” (p. 46)

To sum it up: “Daybooks make visible students’ thinking and learning.” (p.61)

Now, why didn’t I think of that? 
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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Someplace Else(where)

If part of the experience of reading a museum is touching and playing with displayed objects, and if you live within driving distance of Greensboro, NC and want to expose your children to a museum that marries art and history in a century old building, then check out the Elsewhere Collaborative.

Located in two adjacent storefronts five blocks from the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in the historic part of the city, Elsewhere is a unique collection of "stuff" that once belonged to George Scheer, one of the directors', grandmother.  For decades Sylvia Gray and her husband ran a furniture store. After WWII the store  morphed into an Army surplus supply  and catalog supply store. Following her husband's death, Sylvia turned it into a thrift store, stocked from her twice daily forays into local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.

Yesterday I visited my daughter Lori, who is interning there this summer.

When I walked into the space, I immediately was reminded of the Five & Dime store of my childhood in Haddonfield, NJ. The old wood floors and wooden cabinets stuffed with toys, games, children's books, 45's, knick-knacks, and costume jewelry easily pulled me back in time.

When George acquired the space in 2003, it had been boarded up for six years and the rooms were packed full of his grandmother's treasures. With foresight and ingenuity, he and now co-director, Stephanie Sherman began to play with the idea that "shared fictions can be told through things, and as a collection have the power to expose idea that stimulate communities." They began to dream of re-making the store into something else, yet what it already was: a "thinking playground and creative community, the dream fueled by the fantastic combination of the Mixed Up files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and Gertrude Stein's Paris salons."  (

It was George and Stephanie's job to create order out of chaos, and two years later, with the help of an ongoing melange of artists-in-residence, that is what they accomplished. Artists are encouraged to come and create art and performances using the objects, fabrics (over 1500 bolts of vintage cloth were stashed on the third floor), purses, shoes, ribbons, household items, books, army surplus supplies, and dolls that Sylvia had accumulated. Some artists uses materials from the building itself. The results are surprising, amusing, and thought provoking.

Here are a variety of installations you might see if you visit.  Visitors need to look closely to identify the found objects in the museum. Try your hand at it with these photos:

This is called the "Toyrnado" (picture by Blake Mason)

The Army Surplus Room, houses a collection of materials a soldier would have used in WWII. (Photo by Blake Mason).

Children and adults can't resist playing the bouncy ball game in the Super Piano Bouncy Ball installation:

Some of the fabrics that were hoarded over the years found a home in this installation:

Bring your children (who will play with the toys and drums) and eat at Mellow Museum across the street. Bring your parents (who will nostalgically enjoy items from their childhood)  and get a delicious meal at Liberty Oak or Table 16 which are within walking distance.

The museum is open from Wednesday-Saturday from 1-11; most Friday nights they host community events which begin at 8. The buildings are not air conditioned, but fans keep the air moving.

Check their website for information, videos, slide shows, and more. As you might expect, the found objects inside the museum are old, but this staff of young and bright Generation Y's have incorporated every available up-to-date technology.

Come and prepared to be educated. Art isn't what you learned in Art 101 and as my daughter Lori  informed me, "You've got to enlarge your definition of performance." Find out for yourself.

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Don't Make Me Eat My Words

When I was in Spain two months ago, I enjoyed oodles of pastries, delicious hake (left) served with shrimp with their heads and tails intact, tortillas (which are similar to omelets) with asparagus, and delicious ham and cheese croquettes (right).

In the “Supermercado” I saw rows and rows of fish and shell fish, as well as these interesting looking ham hocks. 

In El Fontan (a local farmer’s market) I saw a young woman behead and gut a fish in less than a minute, and a window full of more sausages than you could count.

But this isn’t a food blog so what am I doing telling you about my gastronomic adventures?

Because food is as important to us as writers, educators, and readers as salt and pepper are to cooks.

Consider this. What writer doesn’t reward her muse by the promise of a treat at the end of a finely-honed paragraph or page? In an informal survey of fellow writers, I found that some keep themselves on task by placing a bowl of popcorn at hand, others depend on tea or coffee. Sandra Warren admits, "There's something about the excitement of putting words to paper or computer screen that gets the juices flowing and adrenalin pumping; a physiological shift that demands a sweet reprieve. Carrots, celery even with peanut butter just doesn't cut it the way a freshly baked or even a frozen chocolate chip cookie or piece of dark chocolate can."

And of course, teachers and parents have used food for eons to motivate. But not only can treats reward good behavior, but as this lesson plan shows, a book like Lilly’s Chocolate Heart can teach students how to write with prepositional phrases and adjectives.

Speaking of chocolate, here are some wonderful quotes about this luscious treat that has been known to keep many writers plugged into their keyboard.

Kathleen Purvis, the food editor at the Charlotte Observer, once told me that food writers are some of the best journalists. And that was before the advent of food blogs such as this one.

What about fiction? How important is the food that your favorite characters eat? Consider that the recipe for Harry Potter's butterbeer received 3.445 hits the day it was first sold at the new Wizarding World  at Universal Orlando. 

Not only food itself, but customs about eating can add depth to a novel. I am working on a scene for my historical novel which takes place in Charlotte, NC in 1950. My main character, Kate, is eating cookies in the kitchen with her grandmother's cook, Esther, and Ester's granddaughter, Lillie. Kate notices that, "After they're finished Esther washes out hers and Lillie’s glasses and puts them on a separate shelf alongside of two chipped plates and a couple of bent forks and spoons." 

Food and literature go together like hamburgers and buns. So, please don't make me eat my words. I've acquired a taste for finding food references in books and all of this has been grist for the mill. You might think that writing a blog like this is as easy as apple pie, but trust me, there were many times when I felt as if I had bitten off more than I could chew. But, bottoms up and come and get it. This blog has cut the mustard, is done to a turn, and is now ready to be served!

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