Tag Archive for Maggie Preller

Pro Tips: Finding Inspiration at Home & Across the Street

Every once in a while I talk “writing process” in the hope that educators or readers might find it remotely interesting. I even include Pro Tips! Anyway, ahem, there’s two paragraphs in Upstander (Macmillan, Spring ’21), a sequel to Bystander, where I can directly trace my inspirations. One inspiration comes from artwork by my daughter, and the other is from my neighbor across the street. For our purposes, we’ll call him Bill LaDue.

In Upstander, Mary is struggling with a number of challenging issues. A minor arc is her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Ernesto. Of greater importance to the novel is her older brother’s substance use disorder, its impact on the family, as well as Mary’s shifting friendships at school.

Here’s the unedited scene, just two paragraphs that will appear in the middle of the book. I don’t think you’ll need additional setup:

On the day before her brother moved out, Mary sat in the backyard at a reclaimed picnic table that Ernesto had “rescued” from someone’s garbage pile. He did that a lot. Drove around in his pickup truck on garbage day, often returning with curbside items of questionable quality. A riding lawn mower that “only” needed a new fuel pump and starter switch; a boat that leaked; a set of ancient, rusted golf clubs; a battered ping pong table that lacked a net. He has a weakness for broken things, Mary mused. The thought sank down into her belly, like a small stone dropped into a well, and it made her appreciate Ernesto just a little more.

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it. An hour passed. Very quietly, Jonny sat down beside her. He wore pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His hair was wet from the shower. Mary didn’t comment, but she felt surprised. He didn’t usually show much interest. Why was he here?

 

It’s important to me that even minor characters are, to the best of my ability, fully realized. It’s a source of pride, actually. Who was this Ernesto guy, dating Mary’s mother and spending time in her house? Finding the answer was deceptively simple: Make something up! After all, that’s what writers do. 

I looked across the street at my neighbor’s house, the fabulous LaDues: Bill, Erin, and Charlie. Bill is a good man, a friend, funny and kind. And he has a thing for curbside “garbage.” He’s constantly pulling over for discarded curbside items, seeing value where the original owners did not, and hauling the derelict items home. Bill’s pals gently tease him about this affliction. The boat that doesn’t float, the four riding lawn mowers all in some state of disrepair, and so on. Just today, Bill posted this on social media:

He wrote, with more than a little self-awareness:

Cleaning out the camper. I kind of feel like I absolutely need each and everyone one of these things: 2 extra sets of golf clubs, 8 or 9 coolers, a bevy of beer brewing equipment never used, 2 ironing boards (Erin’s), cushions for a hanging chair (we no longer have the chair). Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.

 

So that’s Bill. And now, because Bill lives across the street from me, that’s Ernesto, too. And as Mary comes to understand it: He has a weakness for broken things.

Yeah, that’s the key to whole character. It’s all you really need to know about Ernesto. I love him for that quality. Ernesto sees the potential, the upside, in everything and everyone. It made Mary appreciate Ernesto just a little more. And it’s something I admire about my neighbor Bill, too; he’s a romantic at heart, an old softy, bless his soul.

Mary, like my own daughter, Maggie, likes making things. She draws and paints and sews and creates. When it came time to describe one of Mary’s paintings, since that’s what she was doing in this scene, I thought of one that Maggie made last winter, which now hangs in her bedroom:

 

I guess I didn’t have to “make something up” after all!

Funny how that works.

So that’s today’s Pro Tip, young writers. Take a look around, be a sponge, soak it all up. As my neighbor Bill attests, “Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.”

Maybe writers are junk collectors, too.

 

Sisters Love Their Big Brothers: Where Ideas Come From

Authors who visit schools get asked it a lot: 

Where do ideas come from

We get asked it so often, in fact, that most of us come up with pat little answers, neat and tidy, that allow us to move on to another question. Any other question, please. 

It’s not that we’re jerks.

The problem with the question is that, well, yeah, there are a lot of problems. To truly answer would take all day and would likely entail far more excruciating detail than any listener would care to endure. You’d lose everybody in the room. When I think of young readers and delve into what they really want to know when they ask that question, I conclude in a few different ways: 1) They don’t super care, it’s just an easy question to ask; 2) They somehow believe there’s one magical idea — a eureka moment! — rather than a slow accumulation of thoughts, impressions, insights, moments; or 3) The inquirers suspect that maybe there’s a secret they don’t know about: they look at their own lives, they look at the amazing books they love, and they just don’t see how one thing could possibly add up to the other. How does the fabric of my ordinary life become something quite as marvelous as a published book? And if that’s the puzzle, I’m not sure I can conjure a decent answer.

Where do ideas come from, anyway

Well, I’m currently proofreading the “first pass” of the typeset version of my next book, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. To be clear, I’m looking at the words as they will appear in the final, printed book. It’s pretty much my last, best chance to make corrections and changes that won’t represent a giant hassle or extra expense to the publisher. In other words, if I change “swigged” to “gulped” nobody will get mad at me. 

So I’m reading the book again. Very carefully. It is about Mary, a middle school girl who played a small but crucial role in Bystander. Everyone has a story and I kept wondering about Mary’s. So I made something up. Her older brother suffers from a substance use problem. It’s about the challenges Mary faces in her crumbling home and at school with her friends and fellow students (the beginning of her friendship with Griffin, what really went on with bullying Chantel, and of course Eric, etc). But where’d that core idea come from? For starters, there’s the opioid crisis that’s been going on all around us, destroying lives and ruining families, sometimes devastating entire communities. For the moment, we’ve been preoccupied with more immediate horrors, but that doesn’t mean other problems have gone away. Ideas are all around us, as my pat answer goes. Not only that, but I think I have something to contribute to this particular conversation. The thing that every writer needs, something to say.

But I also have a specific experience in mind. I am driving my teenage daughter and two of her female friends somewhere. I listen to them talk (for some reason, they aren’t glued to their phones in this memory; lo, there’s an actual conversation!). It turns out that each of these three young woman, all fierce athletes, have something in common. They each have an older brother close in age. And without realizing it, they take turns swapping stories about these brothers — how one is on the spectrum, how another plays guitar and sings, how another is just super fun and a great friend. They laugh about the stupid things these brothers do. During that drive, one simple observation beamed into my skull: These girls absolutely and profoundly loved their older brothers. 

They looked up to them, too — with admiration, affection, pride, even a kind of awe. Maybe that’s youth, maybe that’s just the way some girls are, maybe life will get in the way over time. No matter. Because at that moment, I came away with something certain in my heart. Brothers are important and beloved.

Years passed. In a completely unrelated manner, I began to think about, for the first time, writing a sequel to Bystander, a notion I’d rejected for almost a decade. Suddenly, the time felt right. The idea was there.

I’d focus on Mary and her brother.

At least a shard of it can be traced back to that day in the car, zipping along, listening to three girls chatter about how freaking much they loved their brothers. Then I added some elements that would make that love more difficult, more painful, almost impossible.

So that’s where that idea came from. You don’t always have to travel to exotic places to find ’em.

 

 

NOTE: I have recently very much enjoyed doing book-specific Zoom visits with a Q & A format. Could be Jigsaw Jones, All Welcome Here, Blood Mountain, The Courage Test, Scary Tales, The Fall, Bystander, whatever feels right for your classroom. Contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and we can discuss it.

 

A Dog Leads With Its Nose

Maggie, my daughter, has an eye for photos. Especially when it comes to our sweet Echo.

This remarkable perspective, his glorious snout, brought to mind the dog Sitka in my recent wilderness adventure novel, Blood Mountain

To write about that character, a mutt lost in the mountains with two human siblings, Grace and Carter, I did some research. Though I’ve owned many dogs and have observed them closely over the years, I didn’t feel ready to write about them. I knew that I didn’t want to humanize Sitka, do a Disney treatment; instead, I wanted to honor the sheer dogginess of the creature. And when it comes to dogs, I learned, it all begins with the nose.

What follows are two brief excerpts from the book that hone close to Sitka’s own glorious snout. 

from Chapter 23 . . .

After a time, the dog moves away, climbs down off the rock face, down into the sun-stippled understory beneath the great shade-cooled umbrella of leaves. A hunger gnaws at Sitka’s belly like a twisting, tightening coil of wire. Imagine if everything a human sees — every color, shape, and texture — arrived with a specific odor. The red of that flower’s petals, the deep-rutted bark of a poplar, the light brown of a wren’s chest, the dropped acorns, the pale underside of a leaf, the shimmering sky itself: every pixel that an eye apprehends, for a dog those details come with singular odor, as different as green from red, blue from yellow. When Sitka sniffs, it is the same as Grace opening her eyes. Sitka inhales and her tail sweeps and she knows a man has passed near here some time ago, moving in an easterly direction. A mosaic of smells, each one a discovery. The creatures of this world announce themselves to her nose: I am. The dog goes to the slow-trickling stream. Movement among the ferns. Sitka stealthily moves to investigate, prodded by the ache in her belly. Plunges her nose deep into the living green world, inhales the data points, sniffs out the whiskered, stout rodent. Pounces with front paws outstretched, and again — there! success! — bites down, gulps, gone.

A huntress!

Sweet vole!

And even in that instant, the dog attends to one who lies restless in half sleep; a soft moan, she wakes. Meal in belly — hair and tail and skull — Sitka will be at Grace’s side by the time she opens her eyes. 

And from Chapter 34 . . . 

The dog smells everything, recent past and the acute present, for a mile in all directions, depending on air currents. The data overload is immense. Mind-boggling to process. But one odor comes clearest. Though Sitka has no direct experience of “mountain lion,” that named thing, something in her DNA recognizes the lurking danger, the predator prowling in the dark, unseen and unheard.

But not unsmelled.

Therefore: known.

An old enemy.

Sitka vacuums in the odors, sifts through the information. The creatures with names she cannot know: squirrel, vole, owl, mole, mouse, rabbit, hawk, raccoon. Another faint whiff troubles the dog: man. A desperate man has recently moved through this area, the aroma of stealth and haste.

And another thing: the trees themselves, hosts to so much life. Tree limbs and tree fingers, tree thoughts and tree intentions. The interconnected roots, thirsty and entangled, talking in their ancient tongues, passing along what they know to each other. This is the wild place, the space of time-before, and now the dog forgets recents pleasures of soft cushions and screen doors, fresh water bowls and proffered treats, long drives with the windows down.

Dog recalls wolf.

The time-before.

The snaggletooth. The vicious bite and muzzle shake. The primal memory of ripped flesh and the warm taste of red blood. The fresh kill.

“What do you smell?” Grace asks.

How does the dog answer?

Sitka sits alert, rumbles low, hackles raised, muscles taut. Danger, her body replies.

She senses danger. 

My Pecha Kucha: Baseball’s Red Thread

I gave a Pecha Kucha presentation a couple of years back at our local Opalka Gallery on the Sage Campus in Albany. The other day I came across the text for it, which comes close to what I actually said that evening (my talk was pretty closely memorized, no notes). I thought I’d share it here, because it brings together two things I love, baseball and my mother, and I happen to be missing both of them these days. The images here are the ones I used for the original talk.

BUT FIRST: WHAT IS PECHA KUCHA?

I grabbed this off the web:

Pecha Kucha is a presentation form of 20 images for 20 seconds. The slides change automatically and the speaker must synchronise their speech with the images. It’s sometimes also called a 20×20 presentation. So the entire presentation always lasts for exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

It started in Tokyo in 2003, designed by architects, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham. It was soon adopted by fans of alternative presentation styles. Similar to the short-length focus of an elevator pitch, Pecha Kucha relies upon concision and brevity. By applying a limit on the number of slides, the presenter is forced to streamline their content. It also forces the speaker to prepare and practice, as there is no option to go back or skip ahead. Pecha Kucha is also a very visual presentation style. It is based on single powerful images. Striking visuals enhance any presentation. They captivate the audience in a more immediate way than written words.

 

 

On the outside there are two cowhide coverings stitched together with waxed red thread. There are exactly 108 stitches in the sewing process of a major league ball. I feel like that red thread has been woven through the fabric of my life.

 

If you’re a kid, sooner or later you’ve got to unravel one of these things. Inside there’s a rubber-covered cork core and four types of yarn. It’s the yarn I like best, because a yarn is also a long story. My yarn, today, is about baseball. But that’s not entirely true.

 

My mother was the big baseball fan in our house. A huge Mets fan. The games were always on when I was growing up. She’d listen on the radio or watch on TV, snapping the games off in despair when the Mets were losing. And they were often losing.

 

 

Speaking of yarn: There were always balls of it my house. Everywhere you turned. My mother did most of her best work while watching the Mets on television. We still wrap ourselves in her blankets. This remains the world’s second best use of yarn.

 

 

My mother married in 1948. Seventy-two years ago. Around that time, she threw away her collection of Brooklyn Dodger baseball cards. My father had no interest in baseball. It was time, she thought, to put aside childish things.

 

 

It was my mother who taught me how to play catch. I was her little southpaw, the youngest of seven. And I’d ask her, “Am I graceful, Mom? Am I graceful?” And she would always answer, “Oh yes, very graceful.”

 

 

Some nights she’d let me stay up to watch the end of the games. My tired head on her lap, her hand in my hair, a cigarette in the other. She liked “little” Buddy Harrelson the best. Mom always seemed to have a crush on little shortstops.

 

Around this time I invented my own baseball games. I’d write out the lineups for two opposing teams and play imaginary games. I’d roll the dice. A 2 was a HR, a 3 a triple, 4 was a ground out, and so on. Then I’d play again, and again.

 

 

I filled notebooks doing this. Today I’m a professional writer. And I often think that it began back then. There I was, pen in hand, filling pages, fueled by my love of the game.

 

 

In the morning I reached for the newspaper. I loved the boxed scores. Each boxed score reveals a story. I eventually moved beyond the numbers to the articles. Those were the first writers I loved. The game had turned me into a reader.

 

 

The first time I saw a color television set was in my grandparents’ home on 100th Avenue in Queens Village. My grandfather was sitting in a leather chair, smoking a cigar, watching baseball. I stood transfixed. The grass was impossibly green.

 

 

I grew up. Along the way, I lost my friend, Craig Walker, to cancer. This photo was taken on the day we watched Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The ball rolled through Buckner’s legs and we stood and we cheered and we hugged, ecstatic.

 

 

Quick Craig story: My mother was pleased and surprised to see Craig, more than two decades ago, at my second wedding. “Craig! I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I come to ALL of Jimmy’s weddings.”

Funny guy.

 

 

In 2009, I published my first baseball book. Writing it, then finally placing that book on the shelf with my collection of baseball books, I felt like I’d come home. Baseball, of course, is a game about coming home. I dedicated it to my pal, Craig.

 

 

You strike the ball and you journey out like the hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. First base, second base, third base . . . and finally to return home again.

Safe. Triumphant.

Into your mother’s arms.

 

 

I began playing hardball again in my late 30s. This is my son, Gavin, who’s now in college. These days I play in two extremely old man’s baseball league, ages 45-up and 55-up. Don’t laugh, for in our hearts we are young.

 

 

Look at these guys. My teammates. We take the field, smack our gloves, and look to the sky from where the high fly falls, drifting back and back, saying, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”

And most of the time, but not always, we make the catch.

 

 

Today my mother is 94 years old. Still a Mets fan. But these past seasons something changed. For the first time, she’s lost track of the Mets. She can’t remember the players, or summon the old passion she once had for the game. It’s all become a great blur in her mind.

 

 

And to me –- my mother losing the Mets — feels like the end of something important. A symbol, a metaphor. A red thread, cut.

 

 

And so hanging by a thread, we return home -– to baseball, to my mother, my sense of well-being. It’s gotten so I can’t think of one without the other. It’s all interconnected. And I now understand that my love for baseball is really just an expression of my love for the other.

Thank you.

Here are 6 Videos I Made for Teachers and Homeschoolers to Share with Young Readers

I posted a week ago about our collective struggle to find ways to do something meaningful, helpful, positive during this challenging time. As a children’s book author, my immediate goal has been to provide some online material that teachers and parents can share with young learners.

As of today, March 26, I’ve created six videos and posted them on my own Youtube channel (link below). I’ve also learned how to embed them here, also below. For me, that’s saying something.

Technology: ick.

But, as we’re finding in these days of physical distancing, a valuable way to connect.

Please feel free to share these videos with fellow teachers, media specialists, parents, students, children.  If you have ideas or suggestions for future videos, I’ll be happy to respond to that. Thanks for what you are doing.

Stay smart, keep safe, and enjoy the moments we are given. In my house in upstate New York, we are hunkered down with two of our three children, Gavin (20) and Maggie (19), along with my midwife-wife, Lisa (no age given). Our oldest, Nick (26), is in his NYC
apartment, working online. We miss him terribly. Each night, we’ve been enjoying lovely family dinners. We’re rotating who cooks and (purportedly) who cleans. In many respects, it’s been a beautiful experience. Trying to hold onto those positive feelings. Not worrying, for now, about all the lost income, the stress about bills, all the money stuff. There will be time to recover from that. For now, we embrace the now.

Here’s a link to my Youtube Channel.

I’ve included a brief description and target age level immediately below each video

 

THIS IS THE FIRST VIDEO I made, and the shortest, and it touches upon a theme I try to emphasize before every student I meet, regardless of age (though the delivery gets more sophisticated at middle schools): “You are unique. You have stories inside you that only you can tell.”

 

I MADE BOOKS WHEN I WAS a little kid. I sold them to my friends and neighbors. My mother saved one and I read it here. Kind of funny, I think. Hopefully this video inspires young people to make their own books. In the case above, I needed help with the words from my oldest brother, Neal. Ages 4-up.

 

FOR FANS OF JIGSAW JONES: Here I talk about what I was like as a kid — more of a spy than a true detective — and how I gave my favorite childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. I read a scene from THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT.

 

FOR GRADES 4-UP, JUST RIGHT FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS. THIS VIDEO LESSON centers around a writing tip first offered by Kurt Vonnegut Jr: make awful things happen to your leading characters! I discuss that idea and, to make the point, read two passages from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, my most recent middle-grade adventure novel and a 2019 Junior Library Guild Selection.

 

HERE’S ONE FOR THE YOUNGEST READERS, ages 3-up, where I read from WAKE ME IN SPRING. I also describe the creative process, the thinking, behind the story. And again, as always, I try to turn it back to the reader, to inspire their own creativity moving forward.

 

MY “SCARY TALES” BOOKS are often wildly popular on school visits. Though the books seem to hit that sweet spot of grades 3-5, I’ve met very young readers who are impervious to fear, second graders who love them, and also, by design, readers in uppers grades and middle school who have enjoyed this high-interest, low-reading level stories with the super cool artwork by Iacopo Bruno. For some, their first successful reading experience of a full-length book that is not heavily illustrated. Here I read from the first two chapters of GOODNIGHT, ZOMBIE. 

 

I’LL CONTINUE TO POST MORE VIDEOS — including a full reading of “ZOMBIE” — as time allows. Please, by all means, feel free to share these videos far and wide. Obviously, if I hear positive reports, I’ll be encouraged to do more. Thanks for stopping by.