Tower of Lincoln

Went to Ford’s Theatre this weekend, and to the Peterson House across the street, where President Lincoln died. It got me thinking about a lot of things: race, the presidency, safety, acting and spurs, to name a few. It got me thinking a lot more about archiving and the people behind it — who made the decision to save Lincoln’s clothes? The pillow with the blood? Bits of the nooses that were used to hang Booth’s coconspirators? Did someone sell those as souvenirs? And what about the things they didn’t save?

On the way out, we passed the tower of books that had been written about Lincoln. I’d love to see towers of books on other subjects, too. Tea parties? Dreams? Star Wars? (I will also note that I didn’t spy picture books on Lincoln in this stack, but that I didn’t obsessively search, so I will just trust they were in there somewhere….)

Tower of Lincoln books

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Three Bean Salad

I returned recently from a workshop at the Highlights Foundation where we focused on minor characters and transitions. The workshop was led by Jan Cheripko, who gives his own minor characters their proper due in Imitate the Tiger and other fine books.

For me, the workshop was a great balance between my own private writing time and learning with (and from) others as we looked at characters in Shakespeare — the master, Cheripko says, of the minor character. I’m not going to give away too much, as Highlights will likely offer this workshop again. But here’s one takeaway: Every character counts. And while this is something I knew, it’s also something I sometimes forget.

If you’ve never been to the Highlights Foundation, for either a workshop or a retreat, I highly recommend that you go. And if you have been? GO BACK! I can’t say enough about the staff, the meals, and the TLC. Plus, they have an ice cream bar, people. Baskets of fruit and candy. Also, Cheetos, which, I am not ashamed to say, I ate.

Jamming with friends at the Highlights Foundation. Photo by Jan Cheripko

The workshop was a good balance of other things, too. For one, I succumbed to the pressures of Deborah Prum and brought my guitar. And then I played it. With real, live people. And then I opened my mouth and sang. As I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, some of my best friends have never heard me sing, but here’s the thing:

When you’re showing other people your writing, you are taking a risk. You are making yourself vulnerable. You are being brave. And the distance between that and singing in front of someone else suddenly didn’t seem so far. To quote Debby, who is pretty much a walking, talking Nike commercial: Life’s short. 

Three Bean Salad. Photo by Jan Cheripko

We called our group Three Bean Salad because two of us favored songs that only had three chords in them. (I will note that they didn’t have to be the same three — Liz Harris and I just preferred to skip songs that included B…) I’m pretty sure someone died in every song but Wagon Wheel and Jolene.

The quote you always hear in the music world is that all you need is three chords and the truth. I’ve heard that attributed to Springsteen, Willie Nelson and U2, who have all seem to have said it. But likely the first person to put that together was Harlan Howard, who wrote a few of my country favorites: Pick Me Up on Your Way Down and Heartaches by the Number. Three chords and the truth makes a good mantra for writing, too, I think. At the very least it would keep me from over-complicating my plot?

Something was funny. Perhaps it was my singing. Photo by Jan Cheripko

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Genre Jumper: Kate Ormand aka Kate Louise

In the months ahead, the UK’s Kate Ormand will be publishing books in different kid lit genres, but unless you look closely, you won’t realize that. That’s because Kate is publishing under two different names. Her dystopian YA, Dark Days, can be found under Kate Ormand. Her picture books, The Upside Down Fish and Pierre the French Bull Dog Recycles, are coming out under Kate Louise. Two names. Two web sites. Even two twitter accounts. But just one Kate.

Me: What made you decide to go with two names and how is it working for you?

Kate: I wanted to keep the two mostly separate. My YA novels are quite dark, whereas the picture books are quite sweet and good fun. It made sense to me at the time to write picture books as Kate Louise and YA as Kate Ormand.

Me: Which came first: picture book or novel?

Kate: Novel. I love reading and writing YA so much and that was always my goal. My agent suggested experimenting with writing picture books as she writes them herself. I gave it a go while DARK DAYS was out on submission, the PB sold, and I enjoyed it, so I did it again!

 Me: Which is coming out first?

Kate: DARK DAYS will be my first published work, in June. The two picture books will follow in 2015.

Me: Are you a one-project-at-a-time person, or do you mix it up? How easy to you find it to go back and forth between different forms?

Kate: My main focus is usually just on the one project if possible. But as soon as that is out of my hands and with my agent or editor then I move on to playing with other ideas and working on other things. I find it easy to switch between projects if I take a minute to refresh my memory of the world and the characters and read a little bit of the work. Hopping between YA and PB is a little harder, but I just need to read something I’ve written in whatever style and I’m back in the zone!

Me: Are there themes or places that you tend to explore, both in your writing for your readers and your writing for older ones?

Kate: The character’s journey in both is important. My picture books have gentle messages and happy outcomes. My YA might not be quite as cheerful but it’s that conclusion, where the character has achieved something or found themselves or learned something that shines through in both.

Me: What age group do you enjoy writing for the most? 

Kate: That’s tough. Both have their ups and downs. I probably enjoy YA most because it’s so exciting creating something I love so much. However it can be really hard going and I often get the feeling that I’m never going to make it to the end! With picture books I don’t get that feeling as much because they’re so short, but I do feel the pressure as there’s a lot to squeeze in to a much, much smaller word count. Seeing the illustrations is amazing, too! I love both.

Me: What has writing in one format taught you about the other?

Kate: Plotting, perhaps. Because there’s such small word count in a PB and you have to get your concept, voice, theme, and story into fourteen spreads. So I guess that helps when planning a novel, which can get a lot more complicated the more the word count grows. I feel every piece of writing, whatever it is, is beneficial to me. I learn from everything I do.

Me: Is there a genre you’d like to try that you haven’t tried yet?

Kate: I’d love to write some middle-grade. I’m playing with an idea at the moment while I’m in between projects.

To read more about Kate, visit her websites at and She also has two twitter accounts: @kateormand  and @katelouisebooks


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Imagine what it would be like to have a police car in front of every church on Easter Sunday.

Growing up, on the Jewish High Holy Days, there was always a cop in front of our synagogue.

“Why are they here?” asked long-ago me.

“It’s a deterrent,” my mother said. For awhile, I thought “deterrent” was another name for police — like “copper” or “brass.” But I finally figured it out. There are police cars in front of synagogues in Northern Virginia, too, on the High Holy Days. Now. In 2014. But they can’t be parked there all of the time.

My Facebook feed this week had an odd mix of updates. There were notes from friends in the midwest who know people in Kansas City, where three people were shot and killed on Sunday at Jewish facilities. There were notes from friends from North Carolina who had interviewed the Klan leader who allegedly shot them because he thought they were Jews. The result was an all-over chill that I still cannot shake.

In life, we always know these people: We know the dead. We know the shooter. And we know it shouldn’t be this way.

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Writing with a partner

Lots of you have asked me what it was like to write a book with a partner, so Mary and I thought we’d make a few videos that would give you some idea. The snow day this week gave That Kid a chance to help me put together Video No. 1. I’ll probably link to it again later, but you can check it out now:

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