Thank Goodness for Universities and Historical Societies

Monday, April 25, 2016

University and historical society archives are great resources for researching historical events. And they are even better when they’ve been digitized.

My next middle-grade historical novel will take place during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, so I’ve been reading Chicago and the Great Conflagration by Elias Colbert. Colbert’ book is a study of Chicago’s rise, its economic position before the fire, the fateful October days, and Chicago’s projected future. The great thing about this book is that it was published in 1872—a contemporary account that shows both the events and the prejudices of the time.

Twenty years ago, I would have had a hard time gaining access to Colbert’s book. Or maybe not, since I live in the greater Chicago area. I might have been able to find a physical copy at the Chicago library or the Chicago Historical Society, but I probably would have had to read it and take notes (or photocopies) on their premises. It’s an informative book, and the author does have some creative writing skills to lighten the reading, but many parts are statistics-laden and dull. It would have been hard going.

Fortunately, things have changed in the last twenty years. The book is in the public domain, and I found a Kindle version. It is also available as a PDF and in other formats that have been digitized by the University of Illinois. So instead of blocking out days to read it at a downtown location, I can read it at my leisure in the comfort of my home. And when I find something I want to copy, I simply find the relevant pages in the PDF version and print them off.

Then there is, which is a joint venture of the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University. That site contains a number of photographs like the one at the head of this post. It also includes over twenty eyewitness accounts of the events. Again, I can access all of this from the comfort of my own home.

Since the Chicago Historical Society has many other accounts that haven’t been digitized yet, I will still have to spend significant time there. I even purchased a membership. But having some of the information online makes my job much easier.

This isn’t the first time I have found online resources to be invaluable to my research. The first historical I wrote tells about a Japanese American girl living on the west cost when World War II broke out. I took a research trip to the locations in that book, but it would have been cost and time prohibitive to do my document research there. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. The University of California had hundreds of images from the camps where my protagonist was incarcerated, and the University of Utah had digitized all of the camp newspapers.

Where would researchers be without universities and historical societies dedicated to digitizing history?

I’m glad I don’t have to find out.


The photograph at the top of this post shows the corner of State and Madison Streets after the fire. Obviously, some clean-up has already begun. The picture is from the Chicago Historical Society archives and is in the public domain because of its age.

I AM Working

Monday, April 18, 2016

In On Writing, Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I totally agree. I also believe that you must read what you write, and this is equally true for those of us who write for children. I write middle grade fiction, so I read middle grade fiction. And even though it’s a lot of fun, it is also an integral part of my work. How’s that for a job perk?

I write historical fiction, but my reading covers a broader range. Although I enjoy classics such as the Little House on the Prairie series, reading recent books and following current trends helps me understand today’s readers. These trends include fractured fairy tales and what I call cipher books. I’m not sure if that latter category has an actual name, but it covers stories where the characters have to solve a puzzle by figuring out clues. The clues are often given in code, and the best books give readers enough information to figure out the puzzle alongside the characters.

So how many middle grade novels have I read in recent months? I can’t remember them all, but here is a partial list.*

Historical Fiction

  • The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley—I absolutely love this book, which is my top pick of all the books I have read in the last year or so;
  • The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz;
  • The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan—this could also be classified as a cipher book, but the historical elements predominate;
  • Rescuing Ivy by Karen Kulinski;
  • Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock;
  • The Truth About Sparrows by Marion Hale; and
  • The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone.

Cipher Books

  • The Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman;
  • Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein; and
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.


  • Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller;
  • A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz—this is a fractured fairy tale in the Lemony Snicket style;
  • Splendors & Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz; and
  • How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.


  • The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler;
  • Homesick by Kate Klise; and
  • At Your Service by Jen Malone.

Then there are the books I own but haven’t read yet:

  • Murder is Bad Business by Robin Stevens (a historical mystery);
  • Hold Fast by Blue Balliett (contemporary);
  • May B. by Caroline Starr Rose (a historical in verse);
  • The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby (fantasy); and
  • Grounded: The Adventures of Rapunzel by Megan Morrison (a fractured fairy tale).

So don’t call me lazy when you see me reading children’s books. I AM working.

It’s such a hard life.


* This list does not include the many historical middle grade novels I read about the events that are the subjects of my own manuscripts.

What's a Writer to Do?

Monday, April 11, 2016

I thought I had completed my research on Creating Esther, my middle grade historical novel about an Ojibwe girl who goes to an Indian boarding school at the end of the 19th Century. Then a Native American woman from church suggested I read Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community by Brenda J. Child, who is a respected Ojibwe researcher and academic.

Now I’m all confused.

My confusion isn’t a criticism of Child’s book. It’s more a comment on how customs vary from time and place and the challenges these differences present for researchers and writers.

When researching Creating Esther, I purchased over forty books, which are sitting on my bookshelves for easy reference. This includes eight middle grade fiction books, eight memoirs (five by Native Americans), two Ojibwe dictionaries, and a wide variety of other non-fiction. I also read a few additional books from the library. Then Roland and I took a research trip through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, stopping at several Ojibwe reservations and museums.

These various sources contained some apparent inconsistencies, but I eventually concluded that many of the differences were regional. You can read about that in my February 23, 2015 and June 15, 2015 posts.*

Child’s book resolved one question but raised some others. For example, she says the Ojibwe originally shared land with and fought the Dakota, while Edmund Jefferson Danziger, Jr. states in The Chippewas of Lake Superior that the Ojibwe’s enemy was the Santee Sioux. As I understand it, the Dakota Sioux and the Santee Sioux are separate tribes. Could this be a regional difference, with the Ojibwe fighting the Santee Sioux in the eastern part of the region and the Dakota Sioux in the western part? I don’t know.

Still, the identity of the enemy tribe gets only a passing reference in Creating Esther. The biggest problem came when I read Child’s comment that men did not normally participate in the wild rice harvest until sometime around the 1930s, long after my story takes place. I had based the ricing practices in Creating Esther on passages such as this one from page 13 of The Chippewas of Lake Superior: “While men poled canoes through the beds, women . . . bent the kernels over the canoe and knocked them off with a stick.” (The chapter refers to traditional culture, not 20th Century practices.) The Ojibwe museums I visited also seemed to indicate that men participated in those earlier days. For example, the picture at the head of this post—which I took at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Onamia, Minnesota—shows a man “jigging” the rice (dancing on it to loosen the hulls). A museum placard describes the scene as follows:

The harvest lasted almost a month, with different tasks assigned to men, women, and children. Both men and women knocked rice, although it is said that a long time ago knocking was women’s work. Jigging requires stamina and a light step, and was most often done by boys and young men. Winnowing was typically the job of skilled older women.

I ended up compromising, with my protagonist’s grandfather poling a canoe and her older brother jigging the rice while her father and uncle go hunting. Will somebody fault me for that? Maybe.

But what’s a writer to do?


* As an update, I have since concluded that even the name varies with the region, with “Chippewa” more commonly used in Michigan, “Ojibwe” in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and “Ojibway” in Ontario, Canada. Since I placed my reservation in Wisconsin, I refer to my characters as Ojibwe.

Record Your Memories

Monday, April 4, 2016

I recently mentioned that we held my mother’s memorial service on March 16. At the lunch afterwards, I reminisced with my brothers and cousins. Unfortunately, we are all getting older and our memories are fading. And the day will come when none of us will be around to pass on stories about our parents' and grandparents' lives and our own experiences.

That’s why I’m grateful that both of my parents wrote their memoirs.

As I mentioned in my January 4, 2016 post, Mama wrote for her family. Mama’s memoir is an easy read written so her children and grandchildren would understand what it was like growing up on a farm in the 1920s and 30s. She also wrote some shorter pieces about her life after the farm, although she left most of that to Daddy.

Daddy’s memoir is different. He wrote partly for his family, but he also had a broader audience in mind. He never tried to get his manuscript published, but that may have been his original goal.

In my opinion, Daddy wrote two memoirs and wove them together in one manuscript. One tells about the interesting things that happened to him (and us) during his adult years. I can see extracting and editing those portions into a book for a popular audience—if I ever find the time. The other one is an academic commentary on political, social, and geographical conditions in the Middle East, with some side comments on the United Presbyterian Church and its predecessors and successors. That’s the book Daddy was probably most interested in, but I find it rather dry reading. I’ll leave it to one of my brothers to edit that one—if they find the time.

Even if we don’t find the time, though, my parents’ memories have been written down and scanned, so they won’t be lost to their descendants.

That’s something we should all do.