Why are middle-grade books my chosen writing genre? I’ve written middle-grade and young-adult fiction, and picture books (which I’ve tried to write; but can’t do it well). Somehow middle-grade plots, characters, and ideas are what populate my mind.
Perhaps it’s because I did not have a typical high school (YA) experience: I was a loner and almost “outcast” in my small school. In early elementary (picture-book years), I was popular and it was also an outsized experience. But middle years were a mix of the two: I was evolving into a kid more sensitive to others, more aware of myself, and yearning to be like my peers whom I thought did not have my shortcomings. This is the classic oeuvre of most middle-grade books. That age range is a field of beautiful aspirations and dreaded fears.
Middle-Grade Books in My Purview
Though I mix it up catching up on early middle-grade books I’ve missed or wanted to read (recently I read Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright, Newbery Medal winner, 1939), for the most part I read contemporary middle-grade books. It’s typical for me to read at least three of them a month.
A recent read: Pie in the Skyby Remi Lai. Any fiction book that involves cooking is going to get my interest, especially in the children’s book world. This sweet story of two brothers grabbed me, especially because I had two sons. The three-generation broken family is healed, so to speak, by cakes. The characters are gripping (even the seldom-seen mother), and the young brothers are drawn exactly to real-world scale in how they interact, be it love or tension. I can’t wait for Remi Lai’s next, Fly on the Wall, released in May. It’s preordered on Amazon so I can snap it up on “opening day”!
Coming up on my to-read list (and waiting on my nightstand) are:
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu – This is not my usual subject milieu: there is fantasy, a forest, a woman made of ice. (Weird thing about me: I read the first 2.5 Harry Potter books and got bored.) But I kept hearing so much about this book, I had to put it on my list. Its many awards tell me I must give it a try.
You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly – Two kids who find common ground, though separated by a thousand miles, is an interesting premise. I’m into learning about “other” formats (types I don’t write) these days: alternating POV chapters, diary/letter formats, and such.
Ban This Book by Alan Gratz – I heard Gratz speak at the fall 2019 SCBWI Carolinas conference and he was hilarious. The back cover of this book caught me, because I thought I knew most of the “banned” children’s books by various libraries–and there were some new ones to me. I remember the school-book-banning days that hit Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (child raised in a “communist” style), Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (talking animals being disrespectful to God), and Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (think about it). But Harriet the Spy? Matilda? I have to see what Amy Anne, the lead character in this novel, does about banned books at her school.
Story of the Negro by Arna Bontemps. I was startled to discover that Bontemps, an African-American author, won the Newbery Honor award in 1949 for this nonfiction title. It covers African-American history, and I’m still wondering why, with such a children’s book honored in 1949, has it taken so long for diversity in the children’s book field? Only in the past few years have we truly begun to have better representation of all people in children’s books.
If you have any recommendations for middle-grade books of any era, or your very favorite, please respond. When I hear a reason for someone loving a book, it often compels me to read it.
How the Storytelling Format Can Limit a Fictional Narrative Strategically
As a writer who has created almost all of his fiction in third person limited, using a standard narrative format, I’m always exploring how established novelists use or misuse format to drive the voice of the work. It seems there is an increase of fiction for young people using a diary- or email-type format. Since this has always seemed like an overly easy technique, I sought a justified use of the format.
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary stands as the best example I can find where the format of telling the story matches precisely with the protagonist’s voice, character development, and revealing the progression of time. Though the story is strong on its own merit, it is amplified tremendously by use of dual formats in diary-format and correspondence-format.
This novel begins the story of Leigh Botts, a lonely, lower-class boy with divorced parents, writing to his favorite author. The first few short segments are in quick succession, with Leigh writing a letter each year during his second through fifth grades of school. The graduation of feelings, thoughts and spelling in the letters give us a quick, believable passage of time and snippets of a sincere boy reaching out for connection.
In the next letter, Leigh is in sixth grade, “in a new school in a new town.” The letter is longer and reflects maturity, but ingeniously ends with a juvenile postscript:
A humorous and highly realistic touch like this could only have been successfully included in a novel written in the letter-style format. A subsequent letter ends with the P.S., “If my Dad was here, he would tell you to go climb a tree.”
From this single line, and previous implications, we now know his parents are not together. Other elements are unveiled in this piecemeal, clever fashion. When asked to describe himself to the famous author, he writes, “I am sort of medium…I guess you could call me the mediumest boy in the class.” While there are other (scant) physical descriptions of Leigh in the novel, this limiting storytelling pathway lets us know all we need to know: he is average; he is everyboy; he is self-effacing.
The series of letters to the famous author progress until we infer, from the one-sided correspondence of Leigh’s letters, that the famous author has suggested Leigh keep a diary. The novel switches to a diary-style format, which allows longer, more in-depth exposition and avoids the artificiality of a highly-detailed, progressive-narrative letter that would likely not be written by a young person. Anyone who has kept a diary, even a writer, seldom writes a narrative stream that would match a highly-readable piece of fiction. This change also prevents the reader from wondering why a boy would write such long, detailed letters–something that would jar the experience of staying in the fictive dream-state while reading.
The story unfolds with conflict with Mom; a lunch-stealing schoolmate; Leigh writing and winning a spot at the lunch table with a visiting author. Through it all, we experience his series of disappointments, gradual success caused by his initiative, and finally an understanding of what he can change and what he cannot. All of this arises organically from the words we read that fully seem to be from Leigh’s hand and mind.
Additionally, the letter-writing and diary format gives us a means to explore the emotional terrain with Leigh. His loneliness is shown, not told, by the fact that he is writing letters to his favorite author as though that author is a personal friend.
Persia Woolley writes in How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction, “Good writers achieve a balance somewhere between hand-feeding the readers and believing that it’s up to the audience to ferret out the meaning and content of the work.”
In the case of Dear Mr. Henshaw, the structure of how the story is told is a perfect framework for unlayering events gradually, limiting overtelling so that the reader’s imagination can reach and fill. Had it been written as a straight narrative, either first- or third-person, it could not have been as impactful.
Praising the skills of an author with the stature of Beverly Cleary might seem like going for the low-hanging fruit, but this does not detract from the genuine skill shown in the crafting of this novel. Dear Mr. Henshaw stands a prime, proven method of marrying format with voice–and the Newbery Award is a resounding confirmation.
Cleary, Beverly. Dear Mr. Henshaw. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1983.
Woolley, Persia. How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1997.
My Secret Relationship with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Mother
by Chuck Mallory
To understand, you need to know I grew up in a very small town in the 1960s. My mother was able to put me in first grade at age five, which should be kindergarten age but our school was so small we didn’t have a kindergarten. My older brother had Rosie Hicks in his fifth-grade class. The Hicks family were the only black kids in our school. He warned me that if I saw her walking down the hall and made eye contact, she’d slap me hard.
My first grade teacher, Miss Ragland, was large enough that her breasts almost served as a shelf on which to rest her chin. She was no-nonsense. I brought a red pencil to first grade because I was shocked when I found it in a store. I didn’t know any other color of pencil existed. As Miss Ragland spied me writing letters with it, she clomped over, yanked it out of my hand, and snapped it in two in front of me. “Red pencils are only for teachers!” she yelled.
All of my life I have been afraid of people taking away my things.
By fourth grade, I was a loner who read books. We had a small collection in our classroom and one day I picked up a book that was different from everything I’d read. It was magical. I could feel what was happening in the story. Somehow it made me realize that I could write a story people would want to read and it could be made into a book.
A couple of years passed, I was in middle school and life was worse. Incidentally I heard that the elementary school had received a grant to buy all new books. They were throwing out the old ones. Suddenly I remembered my book from fourth grade. All I could remember, though, was that it was about cave people and had a girl named White Cloud.
I went to the elementary school and asked Miss Ragland, now the principal, if I could go into the fourth-grade classroom and take one of the old books.
“They’re already gone!” she said. “The janitor took those north of town and threw them in the holler.” (Modern folk: this was country talk for “the hollow,” a trash dump outside of town where you took your trash and burned it.)
By then our small town had a library, so I asked the librarian about the book. She couldn’t find it. I had too little information. The internet would have made all this easy.
Over the years I thought about that magical book and the cave people, a young man and the woman named White Cloud. I gave up finding it. I could remember one image from the book, but it was no help. The man and White Cloud were running through the woods.
In my 30s, I was at the library looking for middle-reader books. Since I write middle-reader and YA books, I’m often in the children’s section of the library. I had two sons but they were not with me. I hated to go into the children’s book section by myself unless the librarians knew me. I was always greeted aggressively with, “Do you need help finding something?” or “That’s the children’s section.” An adult man unaccompanied by children has to feel guilty simply walking into a children’s library: you are Potential Predator!
On this day, I skimmed the books. This was a newer branch in Kansas City I hadn’t visited before. Passing the spines, suddenly I saw an old book that drew out an ancient warmth.
I flipped through its pages. Then I saw this:
This was the book! It was Ishi, the Last of His Tribe, and it was not about cave people. It was about Native Americans. The woman was White Shell girl, not “White Cloud.”
Astonishingly, she was Ursula K. LeGuin’s mother. I had just finished The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin and could not believe I stumbled onto such a talented, insightful family–in such a serendipitous way. What if I hadn’t gone to that library? What if I had decided to look for a grown-up book that day?
I worshipped Ishi. It was not only the story, it was my “life MacGuffin.” Everything that defined me sprang from reading this book in 1968.
Soon it was due at the library. I checked the paper card in front. Before me, it had not been checked out in seven years.
I had to have it. Scared to lie in person, I called and told them I’d lost the book and owed them for it.
I waited while they looked it up. Seven dollars, I was told.
What cheap relief. I happily paid it in person a few days later, pretend-apologized, and congratulated myself on being so smart.
The book has been read many times, getting more worn, my own Velveteen Rabbit. I’ve read everything I can find on Theodora. I know her daughter is more famous but I like Theodora better. The Ishi book rests in the most secure place in my home, a nightstand next to the bed that also holds my son’s ashes.
I still marvel at the fact that Theodora did not die until 1979. We had shared time together on this earth. But I didn’t know who she was in 1979; I was in college. The meeting was destined not to be. It was made impossible by a universe that wanted us to have a distant relationship.
This past January I mourned the death of Ursula K. LeGuin. I had written to her back in the day about her mother but did not hear back. Of course not: she was famous. I was just a fan.
I still love Theodora. I love how she writes. We share a love of anthropology. When she wrote about Ishi’s isolation and estrangement she predicted much of my own future.
Rosie never slapped me. I did see her in the hallway and she smiled at me.
I own red pencils now, dammit, and I won’t share them.
My remaining son has been told that when I’m gone, he must take and keep my copy of Ishi as long as he lives.
(Simultaneously published on Medium.com/chuckmall)
“Half-Pint” is Gaining a Jesus-like Iconography
The first thing that stands out from all the strip malls when I enter Springfield, Missouri, is the biggest megachurch I’ve ever seen. It appears to be the size of a Chicago city block and reminds me — along with the many billboards I’ve seen for Evangel this and Living Word that — I’m in Protestantfundamentalist land.
For weeks I’ve joked with my friends that I’m too old for Lollapalooza, so I have to go to Laurapalooza. Now that I’m here and see that it’s already 100 degrees, I wonder if the local grocery stores at least carry wine.
A few blocks after my exit I’m on Glenstone Street, the cornshuck Hollywood Boulevard of this southern city. I see a sweaty, dirty couple pulling two shopping carts of junk they’ve collected off the streets. If they’re homeless, I think, I hope that megachurch opens their doors for people like that in the evening.
But I know they don’t.
Laurapalooza is a bi-annual event celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder. I decided to attend partially because of a book by Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life, where she recounts travels in Lauraland and unfolds her own connection.
I expected some academics. There are always librarians and teachers at conferences. But what I didn’t expect: 125 attendees (117 women, 8 men) from 15 states, and England, Denmark and Japan. Prairie Barbie was an item on the silent auction table. Why would Barbie even want to be on the prairie? Who would choose locusts and no AC when she could have a Corvette and a beach house?
Some attendees wore t-shirts that said WWLD? Dozens of grown women who enjoy wearing bonnets and prairie dresses were everywhere. Then the vendor area: there are Laura ornaments, coffee cups, music inspired by, jars of jelly, and a “photo booth” of flimsy painted cardboard shaped like a Conestoga wagon.
If you thought Laura Ingalls Wilder was only a children’s book author or a Melissa Gilbert TV show from your childhood, you have only seen the handle of the Ark of the Covenant.
The TV show, Little House on the Prairie, has been on the air somewhere every day since it first aired in the 1970s. The books have sold 34 million copies in 71 countries. Laura’s prairie homesteads are shrines, with droves of fans, homeschooled kids, and wealthy Japanese making the hajj every year. Laura’s adult home, in nearby Mansfield, Mo., has 40,000 visitors a year.
All she did was write a few books. But they have become a worldwide business, spawning an unsettling level of devotion and attention. The brick-of-a-book Pioneer Girl, Laura’s original manuscript that had been semi-hidden all these years, was published by tiny South Dakota Historical Society Press in December 2014 and became an instant best-seller.
Nevermind that it was an academic book crammed with more annotations than Trump’s press secretaries, weighed a ton, and cost $40 in an age when people don’t really read books anymore. It sold. So well, in fact, that the press decided to release three more books about Laura in subsequent years.
Laura makes the big bucks.
Some of the workshops at Laurapalooza interested me. Former New Yorker writer Caroline Fraser, who holds an impressive Phd from Harvard, detailed the Minnesota Massacre (mentioned in hushed tones in one of Laura’s books). This American/Indian war stands as a flipside bookmark in the Ingalls family history. While white pioneers like themselves experienced self-designated opportunity and pushed into the West, the native people were pushed out — and even killed violently, if need be.
But it’s hard to have a serious conversation about manifest destiny when you’re talking to women in full prairie garb. The conference itself was schizophrenic. I talked to a producer from PBS in New York at one point (determined to find if any of the eight men present were something other than “reluctant husbands”) and five minutes later was talking to a homeschooling rural housewife who just “loved” Laura, especially her quilt-making.
Sure, there are a few quilt blocks in Laura’s books. What about, though, all the tremendous history in the books? Building a house, feeding yourself from what you could find on the ground, crossing a river in a wagon that held all your possessions and children?
Doesn’t matter. Laura was sweet. Family was king. They spent their evenings singing to Pa’s fiddle music. They worked on the crops together. They loved education. And they were faithful Christians. The last item is a P.S. to the list. Laura’s books aren’t particularly religious, but because the rest of the books’ atmosphere appeals to religious conservatives, Laura has been pushed into churchianity.
Laurapalooza had a seminar on Laura’s 7-greats grandfather, Edmond Ingalls, and how the lineage actually came from England, Denmark and other places in Europe — contrasted with the staunch American imperialist attitude in the Little House books. Fans love to find these contradictions. After all, anything new after over a century is a nugget of gold.
Then, listening to what was basically a physics lecture so we could understand the validity of severe weather on the 1870s prairie, it occurred to me: do we need to dig this deep?
This is how religions get built. There is oral history, which becomes a text, which when popularized ends up in the hands of disparate people who layer upon it all manner of accoutrement. Laurapalooza showed it all: souvenirs, books explaining the original books, maps of where they lived, quilts like Laura made, clothes like Laura wore, recipes based on the food she ate, and breathlessly on.
And people who live by WWLD? Really?
The layers continue to build. A new novel that will hit gospel level isCaroline, a novel about Laura’s mother by Sarah Miller coming in September, backed by heavy national promotion. Attendees at Laurapalooza are informally discussing who should play the movie lead. The general consensus is Brie Larson; she seems to have the balance of strength of tenderness just right for the role.
There is a TV show called Little Mosque on the Prairie. A website about the immigrant experience (and Laura) is Little Laos on the Prairie. There are at least three podcasts on Laura, including a sassy one that occasionally uses the S-word. Even Walnut Grove, the lily-white town portrayed in the TV show, has large Hmong population that has blended the histories. On an outside wall of the Bubai Grocery store there, a large mural shows Laura alongside a Hmong woman as though they are close friends.
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE
Apostle William Anderson is revered throughout the conference. The author of several books on Laura, he has the longevity that gives him a front seat. He began working at the Laura homestead as a teen and even corresponded with Rose, Laura’s daughter. I’m intimidated to talk to him, so I don’t. Anderson was the first to discover that Laura’s books didn’t quite align with the truth, though Rose hushed him up. Every word was absolutely true, she asserted.
We now know better, and Pioneer Girl shed light on any remaining dark corner. Pa Ingalls and family skipped town in the middle of the night when he couldn’t pay his debts. They accepted charity to send Mary to “blind school,” though in the books Laura works to earn the money to send her. An entire two years of Laura’s childhood were purged, to avoid the fact that Mary and Laura worked at a hotel where an alcoholic man caught himself on fire and another man tried to grope Laura. All this was swept out of the proverbial cabin in books that showed a family who infallibly blasted through hard times with unrelenting spirit and drive.
At a certain point I felt a tsunami of Lauraness and took a break for a double-size glass of pinot grigio at the hotel bar. There was NO ALCOHOL served at the conference. Iced tea, coffee and water were enough for Lauraites!
“Are you at that event?” the bartender asked me, nodding toward the Kansas Room.
“Yes,” I said.
“What is it, anyway?” he asked. “Is it, like, about Melissa Gilbert?”
His ignorance is as refreshing as the cold wine that I’ve nearly finished in three greedy gulps.
Each day started at an unfriendly 8 a.m., workshops hammering through the day at a crazed colt’s pace.
I was a bit surprised we were served breakfast burritos at the conference. Why not have hardtack biscuits and beef jerky? You want the Laura experience? It sure as hell wasn’t in an air-conditioned hotel being attended to by hotel employees, drinking Starbucks.
Laura would be 150 years old this year. She even has a hashtag: #YearOfLaura. I think if she were here, she would shake her head at all the attention. She was a farm woman who made simple meals and had quiet evenings with her husband Almanzo. Even after she was wealthy from her books, she stayed in her own little house and lived like the little country woman she was. She shared her memories in the books; now that simple, sacred act has mushroom-clouded beyond anything she could have intended.
Given the choice, surely she would rather people look at a beautiful sunset than gaze upon her image.
I’m on a flight from Chicago to Seattle, on my way to the Pacific Northwest for this year’s Penny Arcade Expo, commonly known as PAX Prime. I’ll be covering a ton of indie games from developers who have traveled thousands of miles to show off their work. And there’s no better time than now for a convention that’s second only to E2.
In the last few weeks, the indie community (and game journalism at large) has been hit by a few controversies. First come the personal attacks and death threats on Zoe Quinn (developer of Depression Quest and narrative director on the PAX 10 game Framed), which sparked tons of discussion and debate, but was plagued by the disgusting actions that many took against her, all due to allegations made by an ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s. The second was the hacking and illegal release of information about Polytron (Phil Fish’s company), developer of Fez. Their site and company Dropbox were hacked, while crucial financial data about Polytron and personal information about Fish were both leaked to the public.
Max Mallory was called “the businessman” at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater because he was one of the few students who could create video games and also had the acumen to work with professionals in the business. He helped students in the Media Arts & Game Development program understand how to present themselves to video game companies.
These incidents both contributed to a larger discussion, the ethics of game journalism. Many are now debating over how game journalists operate, whether they are allowed to support games in development, and whether or not they can form relationships with the developers of games they will write about.
Many developers, journalists and gamers have agreed that these events have really shown the ugly side of gaming. The threats Quinn have gotten are disgusted and aberrant. Even people outside of our bubble have asked me if I know about Depression Quest.
So, as I sit on this flight, I can’t help but think how damn important this PAX is.
We’ve seen some of the worst, but now it’s time for us to see the best. To see developers like Rami Ismail, co-founder of Vlambeer, who traveled cross-country the week before the convention. To see developers like Chris Hecker and John Cimino, who have been putting their hearts into Spy Party for over five years. To see developers like Kitfox Games, a female-focused studio, doing an awesome-looking game called Moon Hunters, and being damn proud of it. To see developers in the indie mini and countless mega booths who passionately pour their effort into their games regardless of who tells them not to, or tells them to stop, or harasses them. These are the best. These are the ones who make the gaming industry amazing.
To see developers like Zoe Quinn, who after all the sexism and harassment she’s faced, will be standing tall by Framed, and proving wrong those who have put her down.
These are the best. These are the ones who make the gaming industry amazing. And after last week, we need these people to show the world why gaming is full of passionate, hardworking dreamers.
Let’s prove everyone wrong. Let’s show the world how gaming is an amazing industry. Let’s go play some video games.
Max Mallory graduated May 2015 from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with dual bachelor’s degrees in English and in Media Arts & Game Development. He was hired before graduation and began working at Mobile Mesh Games in Whitewater, WI. He discovered he had testicular cancer in Oct. 2015. After several treatments and surgeries, he passed away on May 20, 2016. His intention to assist other young adults with cancer will continue with The Max Mallory Foundation
Clean the basement. That’s how you find pieces of writing you never remember writing. I found one, and am going to throw it away. It isn’t bad as much as it is strange. In 2008 I took a stream-of-consciousness writing class and here’s what came out of it. It doesn’t sound like me, then or now. I think I’ve decided that stream-of-consciousness writing, or writing whatever comes into your head, is unsafe and possibly useless. Or brilliant. I don’t know.
We give away our thanks to the earth. We give away our all to the earth. The earth has given to us and we continue a mutual exchange, a give and take, a flow as constant as the wind that whips around the world, the streams that flow from high to low.
We stand in circles, we are circles, we are circles like the earth. We worship the earth and the earth worships us. We are its father and it is our mother. We hold each other, we embrace, we cling in the every circling dance of life…of generation…of reproduction, flow, breath, magic and source.
We are all one, and one is all us. Together we were the earth, we are the earth, and we will become the earth. We are united.
Togetherness. Wonder. Exhilaration. Breathe in and out and feel your gravity, your orbit, your rotation, your movement, your ever-changing face.
We bring you life—we take it.
We love live—love lives us.
We are we are we are earth.
Earth is us and all are saved. Saved from the burgeoning definitions, the warps, the mirrored perceptions that mean nothing, the desires that cloud us, the reverb that shakes us, the blocks that wear on us.
We want the magic of life and do not know we already have it. We want to grab the building blocks of life and they are already in our hands.
You can see I haven’t been the most regular blogger here. But I had a reason for pausing lately. On October 22, 2015, my 22-year-old son was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Seven months later he passed away, after fighting hard and being brave.
I am not the same person and never will be. I have been blogging, but not on WordPress. The latest pieces appear on Medium.com. The blog titles are duplicates or derivative of book titles. These pieces are unlike anything I’ve ever written. I invite you to delve in.
Just Tell Me What You Want – a novel by Jay Presson Allen. I never read Allen’s book but always thought the title was alluring in a Jacqueline Susann way. And the title fits for my piece. I was going to use the term “Grief Vampires,” but my psychic was no user. What she knew still gives me chills.
Life as We Knew is a book on my list for one of the top five young adult novels of all time. But I’m skewed here. Max discovered this novel & it has since become one of my favorites. I was re-reading it when he was very sick, toward the end. Perhaps this title is my new leitmotif.
The Son of Someone Famous is the exact title of a novel by M.E. Kerr, a fav YA novelist of mine. She was more popular some years ago. This is a provocative title befitting today’s clickbait society; Kerr was prophetic. Max was not the son of someone famous; had he lived I would likely be the father of someone famous, though.
Across Two Aprils is a variation of Across Five Aprils, a title by I remember seeing a hundred times in my high school library. I intended for this to be my first-ever piece for Medium and held others I’d written until this was done. I thought the contrast between 2 Saturday mornings 50 years apart was amazing.
Thank you for reading any of my pieces on Medium. Grief cracked me open like a coconut and out poured my most heartfelt writing. That is another great gift Max left me.
I know it can work well as you get into the “flow” and time and space disappear beneath the rapid-fire sequence of scenes forming in your brain and flying from your fingertips onto the keyboard that is clacking like a skeleton’s fingers on an unstringed piano.
That doesn’t make it any prettier.
Here is a perfect illustration of how a fiction writer thinks other people look at him:
Yeah. That’s what it feels like too.
Here is what happens when you have a regular life: you don’t get enough fiction writing done, and your imagination decides to go into overdrive. This is also what happens if you have the luxury of writing fiction without much impediment, but take time off or can’t write for a few days.
Stomach ache? Or a TAPEWORM?
Was that thunder? Or a NUCLEAR BOMB?
Joke email? Or DOES SOMEONE KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER?
Rash? Or FLESH-EATING VIRUS?
Headache? Or BRAIN ANEURYSM THAT IS ABOUT TO POP BIG TIME?
You get it. The only way to dampen down the flames of imagination is by writing. And the longer period of time you’ve written fiction, it just gets worse. Even if you publish little to nothing, your mind already has taken control. You will drain its overenergy, or it will plague you. Make a choice.
Let me start by admitting I feel guilty when I re-read a book. I mean, there are so many zillions of books out there I want to read. I’m intimidated that I’m so greedy about what I want to read. I quickly opt out of books that don’t hold my interest after a while. And that “while” patience-span keeps narrowing. I even gave up reading Joyce Carol Oates because her output passed my tolerance. After all, if you can write faster than I can even read, I don’t have a chance.
The 1st time I read it was because, well, it was the first time and the book was greedily consumed like a bowl of popcorn.
The second time was after reading Pioneer Girl by Pamela Smith Hill. That somber tome virtually ripped the petticoats off Laura Ingalls Wilder with its icon-melting secrets. I had to revisit McClure’s softer realizations to wash away the grime of Pioneer Girl. It’s one thing to learn Laura Ingalls Wilder left out a whole chunk of two sad years of her childhood, as McClure found. It’s quite another to hear that Pa might have been a drinker and some man set himself on fire practically in front of Laura, along with the fact that Laura’s iconic Little House “books” were derived from a single amateurish first draft, with the lion’s share of her iconic books written by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
My current round of reading The Wilder Life is to once again languish in the college-weekend feeling of the narrative, laughing at McClure’s efforts to “do Prairie” by churning butter and visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder shrines. It also has a road-trip flair, as you journey with Wendy and her man Chris. They feel like your fun, intelligent friends who sip hard cider with you, making Twitter-worthy remarks about culture’s quirks. McClure throws dignity out of her Chicago apartment window and admits such deep research as watching “Little House” TV reruns and liking cheesy YouTube videos honoring Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s a little bit like admitting you sneak a flask in your pocket for the AA meeting. McClure has reverence for the impact of Laura-induced sentimentality, but can stand back a bit further and see how cockeyed some fans have gotten.
This time reading McClure’s book, her juicyfruit salad of language comes into clearer focus. In earlier readings, how did I not notice her Jenga’d adjectives? Her (perfect) definition of who Laura Ingalls Wilder has become: a historical literary figure character person idea grandma-girl-thing.
McClure isn’t your history teacher, here to instruct you about life on the prairie. This is your sassy friend who’s gossiping–albeit with superior language skills and stand-up-comic quality delivery–about “Laura World.” This world, expected to be a rose garden, kinda smells like a trailer park.
Nuggets of Laura World: There is a guy in Minneapolis who thinks Laura Ingalls Wilder is God. The town of Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, Wisconsin, has its own Loch Ness type monster named “Pepie.” Adult women in prairie dresses and sunbonnets pretend they’re Laura. People cry when they first visit the historical sites. There is even Laurapalooza, a benign town festival with no rock music and somber historians quibbling quietly over who-cares details of life in 1880 while picnicking on ham salad sandwiches. DeSmet, South Dakota, as it turns out, is a bit like the Roswell of the north. Full of tourist crap and devoted weirdos.
It’s rare, a book that can make you want to go there and stay away at the same time.
NOTE: This is not my usual post about fiction writing, but about recipe development and food blogging–another form of writing I love. I have a blog with my family history stories and recipes on Grit.com – Country Cooking. This is being simultaneously published with Grit.com.
If you’re an avid cook you’ve probably made up your own recipes, then tried to duplicate them, and find you can’t! Or maybe your cooking is good enough that others want your recipes. Either way, it’s time to start developing your own recipes in written form.
First, two key points. The first should be obvious, the second might not.
1. If you find a recipe you like and change one ingredient, you really haven’t developed a new recipe. There are copyright battles about this, and it’s hard for anyone to claim a recipe that is exclusively theirs. But have integrity and come up with something that really is yours.
2. You don’t have to start every ingredient from scratch. You can review other recipes and create your own version. The trick is to use similar recipes from a variety of sources, and create a recipe that is notably different from the others.
People think I have hundreds of cookbooks, but actually I only have 106 (at present). Since I’m interested in rural cooking, culinary history, and side dishes, I’m selective about what cookbooks I buy. Almost all of them are out-of-print or rare cookbooks. As a result, I have some recipes that are unusable. For instance, I have an entire book on how to make aspics and vegetable salads with gelatin. In this era, people really don’t want to eat those.
I write in most of my cookbooks. I’m not going to re-sell them and I want to keep notes on when I made it, how it turned out, and flag any steps that seem wrong. For the last reason, I almost never use “community cookbooks,” which are not vetted by editors. I have two – one that includes a recipe from my mom, and another that includes a recipe from my “great aunt” Georgia Ruth.Yes, community cookbooks are fine for fundraisers, but are a very general set of recipes and often contain mistakes and omissions.
When I start with an interesting idea I’ve seen in a cookbook, I find similar recipes in other cookbooks and compare. There is a crucial first step here in developing a recipe, even if you are starting from a recipe in your own mind.
That step is “editorial testing.” Read through the recipe and ask if it makes sense or if there is something missing – just like you should do before you try a new recipe.
1. Are any ingredients vague? What is a “box” of gelatin? At least one major brand has two sizes. While a “pinch” of something usually won’t throw off a recipe and can be understood, other simple-sounding ingredients could derail the cook. A “cup of green beans” could be a cup of canned green beans, or a cup of raw green beans. If the recipe doesn’t simmer for a long time, that makes a huge difference. Also, think about how a cook who is not your age would interpret your ingredient. Since I’m not a spring chicken, a recipe that calls for “gelatin” to me would mean powdered gelatin. A college-age cook might think it means a plastic container of pre-made “snack pack” type gelatin.
2. Does it have one or more highly unusual ingredients? Some cooks cannot find the same ingredients you can. Often I find myself wanting to include an ingredient like kimchi or banana leaves, then I remember people from Grandma Hamilton’s small town could not get those unless they drove over an hour to a city grocery store. That points to the next step.
3. Who is your audience? Are you writing your favorite recipes for your children? Fine, they know you and likely can interpret some things. Since I write about rural Midwest cooking and publish my recipes, I avoid unusual and foreign food ingredients. In some places – and you might have foreign readers if you’re a food blogger – some ingredients are not available or understood. Could you add vegemite or arepa?
4. Be suspicious if a brand name is used. There are many recipes out there from food companies. Does your recipe call for “Bisquick”? I don’t use Bisquick. It’s easily combined from homemade ingredients – flour, baking powder, salt and oil or butter. Does the recipe suggest adding “Country Crock” for margarine? People tend to substitute, and butter is quite different from margarine. Why use a box of “Duncan Hines cake mix”? Why isn’t another brand OK? Make your ingredients as broad and basic as possible.
5. Are all amounts, containers and temperatures specified? Some old family recipes do not have a baking temperature. Everything seems to have been cooked at 350 F or was made on a wood-burning cookstove. To fine-tune more, do your instructions make sense in the order they are cooked? If you assemble most of one dish, then list a sauce that must be simmered for hours to go with it, start with the part that will take the most time. What is a “loaf pan”? There are at least five sizes. The ingredients should be in order and logical.
I start with a written rough draft, and make notes on it while I cook, such as “the batter will be thin.” Often I consult my go-to cooking book, Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee. I have read this cover to cover, highlighted the “good parts” that pertain to my style of cooking, and refer to it at least weekly. Knowing the science behind cooking can save you from many mistakes.
Usually a recipe takes at least a couple of tries before I get it right, and sometimes more.
When I first started trying to make my own recipes, it was hard to fail and throw away a bunch of food. But if you’re going to develop recipes, you must. Just have a compost pile to “save” what you can. Unless you’re a master baker, or have worked in a creative bakery, do not start with baking. It’s tricky.
And if you want to write or blog, go for it! Sure, the cooking/food world is crowded and popular now, but if you do what you love, you can’t go wrong. I wanted to write about my ancestors, since I love genealogy and have all kinds of old family photos. Since I liked rural-style old-time recipes, the ideas meshed and “Country Cooking” was born.
For middle readers…and adults who never grew up: The Owl Motel
Climbing the Crazy Family Tree, work-in-progress
Lena: Wild Girl on the Prairie, the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's cousin, work-in-progress
Author of middle-grade fiction. Former writer for men's fitness magazines. Author of Middle-Grade short story collection, The Owl Motel: And Other Places Where You Are Not Welcome. Avid cook and gardener who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Amazon author page: Chuck Mall on Amazon
1970s and earlier: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White The Son of Someone Famous by M.E. Kerr The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary
1980s: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan Me Me Me Me Me by M.E. Kerr Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
1990s: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant Journey by Patricia MacLachlan Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
2000+: Runt by Marion Dane Bauer A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng Wonder by R. J. Palachio
The Queen (2006)
The King’s Speech (2010)
Big Eyes (2014)
Hidden Figures (2016)
Green Book (2018)
You will notice I have a fondness for biopics, especially on entertainment figures from the 1950s and 1960s.