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.


  1. Congratulations! This is fantastic news. From my teaching days, I know how thorough the selection process is for books approved for the classroom. And what a fun way for kids to learn about agriculture/farms/animals. When I taught in New Orleans, I had students who'd never seen sugar cane, a crop grown 50 miles outside the city limits. Earlier, when I was a high school student, a classmate raised a calf in her backyard for a 4-H project. The calf won state champ at the state fair. A big donor paid enough for the cow so that Millie could attend college. She got the idea from a book she'd read. Little Joe will help another Millie or two or three.... This is wonderful!

  2. Thanks, Kitty. I think the Illinois Ag Department did a great job on the Companion Guide for Teachers. It looks really fun. And I appreciate you sharing the story of your friend in high school who put herself through collage showing in 4-H. I always appreciate your feedback and enjoy reading your blog posts.

  3. are you going to make another book like "little joe"?

  4. Hi, There,

    Thanks for writing about Little Joe. Yes, I do hope to make another book like Little Joe. I really enjoyed writing about Tess and her Apaloosa, since I grew up around horses, and I also had fun writing about Keller and his hogs. After I finish the novel I'm working on now, which is a historical sports fiction novel for teenagers set in 1950, I want to go back to the farm.