Thursday, February 24, 2011

Little Joe Chosen For Agriculture In The Classroom

Writing realistic fiction involves plenty of research, especially if you're delving into a subject you may know very little about. The best compliment you can get is from the community you're writing about. That's why I'm so honored that LITTLE JOE has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a selection for its national reading program called, Agriculture In the Classroom. You can link to it below. And the Illinois Department of Agriculture actually created a great Companion Guide about LITTLE JOE for classroom study, that's entirely agriculture-themed and really fun.

Immersing myself in the world of my characters is the only way the characters themselves can get developed further and become, "people." While I did plenty of reading before I wrote LITTLE JOE(Storey's Guide to Raising Beefe Cattle still fascinates me), the best kind of research, if possible, is to actually be in the environment you're writing about. These experiences often tell me where to go or not to go with my story.

I'd been living in farm country in northern Pennsylvania during the writing of the novel, where the cattle I talked about chewed their cud 20 feet from my office window. I saw how they reacted in a snow storm, what they did on a crispy autumn morning, and how different that was once they were transported into the heat and the frenzy of the fair. I'd had grandparents who were crops farmers, but I'd lived in urban environments for most of my life and had never been around many farm animals.

But the most valuable times were spent watching the kids at the fair. As their competition life and the relationships they had with their animals unfolded, I saw it all sitting in the bleachers or on a hay bale in the show barn. That's really where my novel took shape.

Some people have asked me what comes first, writing or research? I'd say both. I find if I do too much research before writing it can deaden any emotion or put too much thought into a conversation and make the writing clinical. When I do read something that excites me, I make a note of that and sometimes stop at that point and write. It's a constant flow between the two and I often write scenes that will find their way in the middle of my novel, as I don't write in chronological order.

Sometimes, I'll get the heat of a scene down fresh after observing it either in my head or in actuality, then later, flesh it out with accurate information in narration or lightly sprinkled into dialogue always asking myself, would my character really say that and in this way?

And of course, when the inability to write inevitably surfaces, and it always does, research is a great way to still make progress on your work.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

When It Snows, Eat and Read

Well, I now officially feel like I live in an snow home. Being from Canada, my American friends often joke that I must've lived in one as a child, since I came from a community where we could ice-fish on one side of the lake and skate or toboggan on the other each winter. And we did make plenty of snow tunnels. The piles often reached as high as the rooflines.

Now, here in New England, Rich is shoveling snow off the roof every two hours and the gulleys in front of our cellar windows, which are barricaded by the icy mix. I'd never heard of roof rakes before, and we don't have one. Back home, we just let the snow drift over our gables like in Who-ville.

Jake, our now eight-year-old neighbour, was out before nine in his snowsuit uncovering the snow fort he'd built. But he told us it had animal pee in it, so he's going to have to build a new one. He doesn't think it's from his little brother Avery, because Avery can't unbutton his snowsuit with his mittens on.

Anyway, what I like best about New Englanders who get handed weekly dumpings of snow, is that they still go out and do things. They put on their bogs, and in my case, moon boots from Montreal, good for 30 below temperatures.

It was great to discover this when Rich and I had a signing at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough last week. Nine people came to listen, decked out in hooded parkas and boots coated with snow up to their knees. Afterwards, many of us did what's often the best thing to do during a snow-crazed winter besides reading - we went to the Cafe and sipped on steaming bowls of soup.

I ate the best tasting mushroom barley soup at Aesop's Tables, the Cafe right inside the Toadstool Bookshop. Willard, the bookshop owner, and Allison, the Cafe meister, certainly have created a cozy, inviting atmosphere where you can curl up with a book and savour all those satifiying pages with a cup of delicious soup. Now all I have to do is remember to bundle up and pay them a visit when the next storm hits. From the kind of winter we're having so far, I'm betting I won't have to wait very long.