World Building Days Gone By


After a recent, especially helpful critique I was left with the impression I needed to mainly focus on two things. The first was moving a wrongly placed conflict. It didn’t surprise me. I had had a feeling about it myself, but justified it at the same time. The beauty of writing is the save as button. Nothing has to change forever. If I decide I like the original way better than the revised way, I can revert. But it’s always worth the try to do something that makes you a little uncomfortable, something you are not quite certain about. It may turn out to be magic.

The other big note is on world building. And admittedly, here is where I struggle. It’s historical fiction. And I’ve done A LOT of research on the time period and the events in my story.  How do I build this world of long ago without dumping all of this info onto the page? Then there’s the question of what do I do about the areas that are fuzzy?  The areas the research didn’t reveal? Do I fill in the gaps creatively or find a way around them?

My brain leads me to further research, but of a fun kind, for me. I got to reading.  Here are the seven things I’ve gleaned from the first three chapters of seven historical fictional novels. Hopefully it will lead me to build one vivid world.

The seven books I studied:

  • Paper Wishes (2016) by Lois Sepahban
  • Down the Rabbit Hole (2013) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • Number the Stars (1989, oldish, but my favorite Newbery winner) by Lois Lowry
  • The War that Saved my Life (2015) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Worth (2004) by A. LaFaye
  • Dash (2014) by Kirby Larson
  • Fever 1793 (2000) by Laurie Halse Anderson

*Timeout for a plug. One of these lovely authors is the person who critiqued my first three chapters. Do yourself a favor and keep an eye on Kidlit College for opportunities to grow your craft. Ms. LaFaye empowered me to plunge back into a story that had become stale, helped me to see the good in it, and showed me where I needed to grow in a way that made me feel strengthened instead of diminished. Besides, hearing words like compelling piece and powerful story is a confidence boost that makes the baby seem a little less ugly. FYI the Novel Direct Contest is open until November 1, 2016. *

The good news is there’s no one way to do this. The bad news is there’s no one way to do this. So, more often than not, here is what I discovered.

  1. Five of the seven are written in first person. An advantage of this is keeping the movie camera super zoomed in and noticing only what the character would notice. Like in The War that Saved my Life, Ada had no idea there was a world war brewing outside of her flat because she was imprisoned in her home. A disadvantage of first person narratives is being unable to ever leak information to your reader that your protag wouldn’t know.
    • Mine is written in third-person limited. I think this is working for me, for now. Third-person limited is similar to first person in that the protag must be in every scene and only his thoughts and feelings are divulged, the others’ may be inferred. But I may play with first person. It seems easier for the reader to sink into the skin of the protag.
  2. The story is in the specifics. After completing my last rough draft, I read Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. She has an entire chapter called the story is in the specifics. But the specifics, the details, must have a story reason to be there, not just a cool piece of research I picked up and want to fit in. For example, in Number the Stars, the second chapter is nearly all back story, told through a bedtime story that led to a flashback, that delivers a vital theme of the story. A boy tells a Nazi soldier that all of Denmark is a bodyguard to the king. In the third chapter, Annemarie realizes that all of Denmark must also now be a bodyguard to the Jews.  wired
    • In Down the Rabbit Hole, Pringle is very keen to notice people’s fashion. Valuable story retail space is taken with details about the fashion of 1871. I doubt Susan Campbell Bartoletti chose emphasizing fashion over decor, for example, because it is what interested her. I’m sure there is a story reason. But only having read the opening pages, I have yet to discover if I’m right.
    • I have a lot of specific information I know from all of my research. But like Lisa Cron wrote, “The more details the writer gives us, the fewer we’ll remember, proving, once again, that as with most things in life, less is more.” If it doesn’t have a story reason, pitch it.
  3. Don’t just world build for the sake of painting the picture for your reader. There must be reason for it. For example, in The War that Saved my Life, Ada leaves her flat for the first time, ever. As a writer, I’d be tempted to tell of all the things she would be seeing for the first time as she’s walking with her brother to school and running away from her mother. But if Ada were a real person, and we treat our characters like they are, than in reality she wouldn’t notice these things around her. She was in such terrible pain from walking on her crippled foot that she had to crawl a block. At which point the reader learns about the trash and the mud that she must crawl through to escape.
    • What this means to me, is that I have to know my character so well to know what would stand out to him. How much do I pay attention to the color on my wall or the the way I sink into my couch? If it’s everyday to my character, he probably wouldn’t notice it either. And if there’s an emotionally or physically strenuous scene going on, he sure wouldn’t notice the crackling sounds of the wood in the fireplace. I know you have incredible talent at painting a beautiful picture. But state of mind of your protag and moving the story forward trump pretty words.
  4.  Historical information is weaved in organically. Very rarely does the story tell us off the bat the time period of the story. But we often quickly get the sense of time period. Consider the everyday items of today that were different then. In Worth we get clues through the necessary details of the story like using horses and a wagon to do the field work on the farm, or that Ma is a tinker. Her job has two layers of story reason, but it also puts us back in time. In Dash, while riding the bus Mitsi notices signs in stores saying, “We don’t serve Japs.” That’s more than a good piece of research. It’s a detail that is setting the stage for future scenes.
    • If I’m reading my critique correctly, this is what Ms. Lafaye referred to as double duty detail. Meaning it has a story reason to be there, but it’s also giving us a sense of the time or setting.
  5. Sometimes we have to get back matter in. This could be through a flash back, which reads like a scene, or by carefully placing in back story. But again, there must be story reason. (Note the example above from Number the Stars)
    • Example of back story from Paper Wishes: I pretend everything is normal and go to my room. Once, I shared my room with my sister, Keiko, and my brother, Ron. They are far away now, in India… Seeing something sparks a piece of backstory that is necessary for future scenes. But if it’s not necessary for upcoming story, then that piece of backstory can remain in your prewriting journal.
    • A flashback reads more like a scene. Here’s an example from Down the Rabbit Hole: I remember his voice crackled like static air before a storm. “Pringle, I have terrible news.” Yet I plunged ahead, unafraid. I was Alice, chasing the White Rabbit. “It’s Gideon,” I said.
    • Yes, my story has quite a bit of back matter that fuels future story pieces, but I have to be sure its revelation is triggered by something happening in the present and that its reason for being brought up is quickly revealed.
  6. We’ve got more than vision, so use the other senses when possible. In Worth, Nathaniel is trapped in his room with a broken leg, for weeks. He sees the same four walls 24/7. Imagine how bored he would be and we don’t want to bore the readers. Instead, his ears become his eyes. He can tell his dad is wearing his Sunday boots on Saturday by the way they sound and that has great story reason because that means dad is going somewhere important. Lisa Cron warns, “Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.”
    • I’m starting to get the meaning of advice I’ve heard at many conferences, every word must earns its position on the page. Every sensory detail must be informing the reader or else they will tune it out or worse, get bored and close the book.
  7. Does age matter? Only in Number the Stars is the specific age of the character revealed. In the other six, the reader is able to estimate the age based on how the character behaves and interacts with others. In reality, how often does age come up in real life? It’s not often on our mind, so it most likely wouldn’t be on your characters’ minds either. Yet, isn’t that one of the things we often ask in critique groups, how old is your character?

What do you think? How important is it to tell the age of your protag? Or maybe it’s better to show it.

Okay, I have six books to finish reading and an opening of a story to reshape. Lots to do. Always lots to do!

Happy writing!

Mission Accomplished

This is the face of satisfaction:


Computer shut

mission accomplished


But it’s really like this:


258 free verse poems roughed

it’s an ugly baby right now

but it’s complete!

And it doesn’t take long to feel like this:


What’s next?

Reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

while revising older stories

and researching people and places to submit to.

Marinating on the two ideas

I’m contemplating for my next projects

before cataloguing

the research I need to complete

to round out the rough draft

before going through the



OOH! Now I can get that haircut I told myself had to wait until rough was done.

Rough is done!

Hello, Salon!


Book Trailers

To create a book trailer or not, that is the question.

I’m not talking about the book trailer that is used to market books that have already been published and I’m not going to debate the benefits and criticisms of them. I am going to talk about taking a day to create a book trailer for your WIP.  It may look cheesy and unprofessional, but here are a few reasons why it is helpful and some resources on how to do it. Read to the end for a reveal 🙂

Creating a book trailer for your WIP is helpful for so many reasons.

  • It requires you to deconstruct your novel down to its essence. A one page synopsis is a heck of a challenge for a 60,000 word story.  Chiseling it down to the 30 words or so that is the heart of your story gives you so much clarity.  This will help you to create your query and your elevator pitch in the future.
  • You will most likely use still pictures.  Maybe you want to create a live action trailer, but I’m not talented in that way, nor do I want to invest that kind of time.  The still pictures can help you visualize what you have been trying to portray through words.  This is especially helpful if you are writing a story that you did not personally experience.  This was my case for my first story, it takes place in Chicago in 1871.  Sometimes it’s hard to visualize the setting.
  • Setting it to music gives you theme songs that set the tone of the story.  I use music a lot when I write.  I find a theme song for my characters.  I use specific songs for scenes in the story.  I also have a soundtrack for each story. I believe that when we are using as many mediums as we have at our disposal to help us create this world in our story, it will be richer, deeper, and can come to life for the reader.  I REALLY WISH I COULD DRAW! That would raise my game to whole other level!
  • It inspires me every time I watch it. As cheesy and basic as it is, if I watch it before I work on the story, it puts me directly in the frame of mind I want to be in.  My mind is in my story and my heart is feeling the emotions I want my characters to feel and my reader to experience.
  • It is a great tool when you are getting to that point that you either are tired of your story or you don’t know what else it needs.  The trailer gives a fresh perspective to push you forward.


How to do it:

I’m thinking some of you reading this could better explain this than me.  So I would love to get some advice on this matter in the comments.

I used Movie Maker for Windows as the editing tool.  I used images labeled for reuse.  Your own photography would be great too, but since my story takes place in 1871, I wasn’t up to that challenge of recreating the look. And for my sounds I used songs and Pond 5 for sound effects. This wasn’t free, however. It took me the better part of a day to create it between learning the tool and editing down my story, music, and pictures.  Straining it all down to the bones and then pulling it all together was hard but so good! so very, very good!

A few more resources:

Where to get photo stock, check out these pages. Sixty-five sites. 17 amazing sites.

A couple sites with professional book trailers.  Some inspiration. Brainpickings and Book Trailers for Readers.

A critical perspective on book trailers from The New Yorker.

And a completely vulnerable moment for me.  My book trailer.





Dag Nab It!

It was bound to happen.  And it has.  Lauren Tarshis has come out with a new I SURVIVED story, and it’s the one I secretly hoped she would not want to write.  So, of course she did.

i survived book

Grrrr.  I’ve already ordered mine.  And I know it will be wonderful as all of her books are.  Sigh. Learn more about Lauren Tarshis here while I lament over my dramatic and action-filled Chicago Fire story (that is BACKDRAFT meets PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS) with the makings of a classic that is still sitting in my computer waiting to find the right publisher.

On the upside, she wrote her story because her readers asked for it.  Therefore, there are kids out there who are interested in the Great Chicago Fire (and I can’t blame them!).  AND  . . . My story is skewed to a slightly older audience, of fifth and sixth graders.  This means the third and fourth graders who loved I SURVIVED THE GREAT CHICAGO FIRE OF 1871 will have a great story to look forward to when they get a year or two older.

Well, that’s my upside and I’m sticking to it.  No lingering discouragement allowed on the path to becoming a published author!

Keep playing with words and keep your chin up when the inbox is not bringing you the news you’ve been waiting for!

Middle Grade Book Length

The dormant math teacher in me is needing to click at a calculator for a minute.  Word count.  This pesky thing is really starting to irk me.  Time to do a little math.  I’ll do it for you, no need to bring out your calculator too.

Wherever you look, it is estimated that middle grade fiction should be between 20K and 55K words.  The average number of words on a page is 250.  That means book length is between 80 pages for lower middle grade and 220 pages for upper middle grade fiction.

My middle grade novel is hovering around 70,000 words or 270 pages.  I would really love to get it under 250 pages.  With this in mind, I decided to take a quick survey of popular middle grade fiction and its page count.

book case

From my bookcase: Title, number of pages, year published, *denotes non-standard formatting

  • Johnny Tremain, 1943, 300 pages
  • The Cricket in Times Square, 1960, 151 pages
  • Bridge to Terabithia, 1977, 163 pages
  • Night of the Twisters, 1984, 153 pages
  • Number the Stars, 1989, 137 pages
  • Maniac Magee, 1990, 184 pages
  • Fever, 2000, 243 pages
  • A Single Shard, 2001, 148 pages
  • Penny from Heaven, 2006, 256 pages
  • Schooled, 2007, 208 pages
  • The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, 2010, 170 pages
  • I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, 2010, 176 pages
  • Breaking Stalin’s Nose*, 2011, 151 pages
  • Dead End in Norvelt, 2011, 341 pages
  • Inside out and Back Again*, 2011, 260 pages
  • The One and Only Ivan*, 2012, 300 pages
  • Tua and the Elephant*, 2012, 202 pages

From this very small sample of middle grade fiction I can conclude book length is trending higher than previously.  So, let’s look at what came out this year.

From the Chicago Public Library’s list of Best Older Fiction of 2014

Out of the 30 books listed

  • two were written in verse
  • one graphic novel was 80 pages
  • of the remaining 27 books
    • 1 was under 200 pages
    • 10 were between 200 and 250 pages
    • 7 were between 251 and 300 pages
    • 4 between 301-350
    • 5 had more than 350 pages

This list was determined by librarians.  I figure they may have a higher tolerance for longer book length than the average consumer.  This brought me to the New York Times Best Seller’s List.

From December 12, 2014’s  NY Times best seller’s list for children’s middle grade

  1. House of Robots, James Patterson, 352 pages
  2. Wonder, PJ Palacio, 315 pages
  3. Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods, Rick Riordan, 336 pages
  4. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson, 336 pages – in verse
  5. The Fourteenth Goldfish, Jennifer Holm, 208 pages
  6. The Princess in Black, Shannon Hale, 96 pages (for 5-8 year olds)
  7. The Care and Keeping of You 1, Valorie Schaefer, 104 pages (non-fiction)
  8. The Contract, Derek Jeter with Paul Mantell, 160 pages
  9. The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate, 300 pages
  10. Leroy Ninker Saddles Up, Kate DiCamillo, 96 pages (6-9 year olds)

It appears that book length doesn’t turn away the average reader either.

Ideally, it would be great to keep word count below 50,000. I know I love to zip through a book and when it’s shorter, it’s less intimidating to reluctant readers.   This data, however, suggests that it is not a gatekeeper.

The bottom line is: Write well, with vivid language that creates a mental movie for the reader.  Take the reader to a place they can’t go in their everyday life, help them have experiences they might not have on their own.  Don’t get hung up on word count, but make every word work for its space on the page.  Then, when your vivid writing with a strong voice attracts an editor, be ready to kill the darlings.  Until then, write, revise, write better, pay attention to word count, but don’t get hung up on it.

A few pages on word count if you want more information.

From writer’s digest

Literary Rambles

Young Adult verses Middle Grade

Not Just Coincidence

I never cease to be surprised when things line up in such an amazing way that you know it could not have worked out so well if it was purposely planned.  As a person striving for deepening faith I credit most coincidences as God-incidences.  And that is true as I sought out readers who could peruse my manuscript for historical and technical accChicago's Forgotten Tragedyuracy.

As part of my research, I came across a little gem, Chicago’s Forgotten Tragedy, by Bill Cosgrove.  Though it is primarily an account of the 1910 fire at the Chicago Stockyards that claimed twenty-one firemen, it also includes a wealth of information detailing the history of the Chicago Fire Department.  This was information that all the research I had done had not uncovered.  Being a retired Chicago firefighter, Mr. Cosgrove has extensive knowledge and access to historical content.  Then the thought occurred to me that I should ask him to read my MS and be an expert reader for both the technical side of firefighting and the historical content of the Great Chicago Fire.

You know, as a writer you’re supposed to have a one line summary of your story.  Mine is: It a histocial fiction novel where Backdraft meets Pursuit of Happiness.   As I was researching Mr. Cosgrove to contact him, I learned that he has three other books as well: The Noble Breed, Accident or Arson, and  Robert De Niro and the Fireman.  I also learned that he served as technical director to Robert DeNiro on the movie Backdraft which inspired one of his books (you can probably guess which one).  Did I say Backdraft? Yep, Backdraft!  As in my book is Backdraft meets Pursuit of Happiness!  Holy Toledo I was now very intimidated to ask.  But I sent an email into the mysterious internet world not confident of the outcome.  A few days later I received a voicemail saying that he would love to read through my book.  What??

After he read it he talked me through my book, one major scene at a time.  He was very fond of my book, impressed with my research, and offered minor things to change.  (Thank God I do not have to do a major revision as a result!)  As it turns out, Mr. Cosgrove is also a south side Irish, from a firefighting family.  He, too, lost his father in the line of business.  He was enamored with Mam, my MC’s mother, and how much she reminded him of his own mother.   He said that I really knew the Irish.  I then told him that I’m actually a McDonald myself, though very Americanized, maybe it’s something deep in the blood.  He also honored me by asking his sixth grade grandson (my target reading audience, by the way), to read it.  This young man was not intimidated by the 276 pages to get through.  He enjoyed it as well.

When so many coincidences line up like that, you must know, they are not coincidences.  I will fly high on this praise for a bit and let it give me the confidence to stomp into my next phase: looking for an agent!

Thank you, Mr. Cosgrove.  I hope to send you a polished and published copy of my first edition sometime soon!


A little encouragement

I recently found out that my submission to a writing competition earned an honorable mention for my Chicago Fire story.  The skeptic in me remembered elementary school science fairs where most people walked away with an honorable mention.  As it turns out, that wasn’t the case.  There were two honorable mentions and one overall victor for the chapter book category.  So my little skeptic said, out of 5 submissions.  All-in-all there were 32 submission.  Of those were of course picture books as well.

I’m going to quiet the skeptic in me and accept the encouragement.  It came at just the right time when I’m starting to run out of steam to get me through this revision.

Thank you, Litchfield Education Foundation for the pat on the back.

happy dance!

happy dance!

The First Great Chicago Fire

While many have heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, its predecessor is relatively unknown, yet played an important role in both the salvation of the west side of Chicago and the utter decimation of the business district and the north side during the historic Great Chicago Fire.saturday night fire

Where Union Station sits in modern day Chicago was once the site of Chicago’s largest fire.  It held that record for mere hours before it was obliterated.

For days past, alarm has followed alarm, but the comparatively trifling losses have familiarized us to the pealing of the Court House bell, and we had forgotten that the absence of rain for three weeks had left everything in so dry and inflammable a condition that a spark might start a fire which would sweep from end to end of the city.  Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1871.

This prophetic article was published in the Chicago Tribune the morning of the Great Fire.  It was written after the greatest fire Chicago had known to date.  A fire that started at about 11:00 pm on October 7 and lasted seventeen hours.

It was suggested that the fire that began in the basement of the Lull and Holmes Planing Mill was most likely arson, but there was no time for any formal investigation.  This fire began in what insurance companies of the time termed “The Red Flash District.”  It was so named because a large percentage of its occupiers were lumber yards and coal yards.

The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago railroad tracks ran along the Chicago River, bordering the eastern edge of the west side.  The National Elevator, presumably stocked with grain, was sandwiched between lumberyards, with the tracks on its west flank and the river on the east.   Saloons, wooden tenements, and factories such as a paper box factory and a sash factory filled the rest of the space of this four city-block area.

All of these materials were very flammable and Chicago was at the peak of a terrible drought. Once this fire started, these four blocks were nearly, completely in flames within twenty minutes.  A Red Flash.

The fire department was quick and effective in containing the blaze.  There were some trials along their road to victory, however.

The Chicago steamer was wrapping up a small fire across the river when the call came for this new fire.   Before the fire gained ground, they set up on the north end of the fire.  As they were connecting the hose to the hydrant, the hose burst.

While they were fitting a new hose, the building in front of them collapsed, shooting flames into the street aiming at the steamer.  The firemen had to make a run for it.  With the horses unhitched and tethered safely away, the firemen had to return to pull their steamer by hand or lose the engine to the fire.

The fire soon crossed Jackson Street and spread through the next block as well.  The firemen then relocated the Chicago steamer to protect the National Elevator.  A fire started up a few times, but they quickly extinguished it.  The elevator was one of the only standing structures when the blaze was over.

The great number of spectators who came to watch the free entertainment also had their share of calamity.  A roof of a shed collapsed at Clinton and Jackson under the weight of nearly 150 spectators.  A raised sidewalk gave way, as well.  Each incident doled out its share of injuries.  And several volunteers who were fighting the fire at the lumberyards found themselves in the river when they got caught between flames.  They threw planks into the river and jumped in after them, paddling them across to the other side of river.

Some other volunteers came in quite handy as the fire was trying to spread north across Adams Street. Quirks saloon, on the northwest corner of Adams and Canal, started smoking.  A number of men from the insurance patrol were in the area (perhaps enjoying Quirk’s generosity as he was giving away his stock of liquor and cigars).  They were ready with portable extinguishers and kept the walls wet when they started to smoke.  This action helped keep the fire at bay.  Another set of volunteers were tearing down sheds and fences along the train track when a small hut on the corner across from Quirks caught.  They ran in and brought out a terrified old woman who was caught inside. She lost her home, but her life was safe.

The fire raged for many hours.  It was under control by 3:30 in the morning.  And the last of the fire engines left the scene around 4 pm, Sunday afternoon.  The Chicago steamer was one of them.

After seventeen hours of fighting Chicago’s worst fire to date, the fire department was hurting.  Hoses took a beating, coal was running low, the William James steamer was badly damaged and deemed unusable. The Clybourne hose cart was lost and the 190, or so, firemen who worked it were exhausted, suffering from smoke poisoning, swollen eyes, dehydration, and burns.

Yet, the fire department was seen as the heroes of the event as historian A. T. Andreas captures, “It was not accident, nor extraneous influence that checked the fire here, but calm deliberate, intelligent heroism; and to those heroes Chicago owes eternal gratitude.”

In less than five hours from the time the last engine left the burned district, a new fire started mere blocks away in a little wooden barn that would indeed spread across the city. No cows will be blamed here, however.

The little, great fire began on October 7, 1871 at 11 p.m. on the west side of Chicago, lasted seventeen hours and destroyed four city blocks. With nothing to fuel the great fire these four city blocks that now lay in ashes, saved the rest of the west side from the same fate.

The firemen who did not work in shifts, at the time, were exhausted and hurt. The equipment was damaged, but the morale was high. It was a great victory.

The Great Chicago Fire . . . well, that’s a different story all together.

Please feel free to leave a comment by clicking on the title.  At the bottom of the page will be a place to leave comments.

Chicago: Ripe for a Fire

Photo Credit Chicago History Museum: The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory

Photo Credit Chicago History Museum: The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory

In October of 1871, Chicago was entering fall riding on a heat wave after a summer’s long drought.  Serious drought.  Less than five inches of rain in more than three months, with less than an inch in the month leading up to the fire.  This certainly effected more than the farmers who surrounded this growing metropolis.

What made this drought so problematic? The city was made, almost entirely, out of wood.    Wooden houses.  Wooden fences.  Wooden barns and outhouses.  Wooden sidewalks.  Wooden streets.  (Yep – mostly in the business district.) The sidewalks and streets were often raised because when it did rain, everything became mud.  The raised sidewalks, some as high as six feet, provided a chimney of air for a wayward spark.  The downtown buildings, some which claimed to be fireproof, were still made of wood.  They may have had a limestone or marble facade, but were wooden underneath.   That’s thirty-six square miles of parched wood.  Do you know that even some of the fire hydrants were wooden?

But there’s more!

It’s 1871 – which means wood burning stoves.  Every house by now would have started to gather its winter supply of wood and kindling, sawdust for tinder.  Kerosene or gas lamps lit the homes and the streets.  Hay, straw, and feed were kept to care for the animals.  Though having a horse was something reserved for the more well -to-do, most houses had some livestock.

Chicago was a bustling city, busy growing.  The business district was budding and there was much money for a serious entrepreneur to make.  Being nicely located at the foot of one of the great lakes, with a river that fed into it, Chicago became a nerve center for commerce in the short thirty-eight years since it became an organized village.  Soon it became a hub for railroad lines too.  What did Chicago have that was being shipped out everywhere?  Grain.  Coal.  LUMBER.  Yep, all flammable.

Robert Cromie, in his book, the Great Chicago Fire, wrote, “It might be said, with considerable justice, that Chicago specialized in the production, handling, and storage of combustible goods.”

So, yes, Chicago was ripe for a fire.  And it had many leading up to the great one.  Next time I’ll tell about Chicago’s biggest fire.  Well, it doesn’t still hold that title.  In fact, it only held that title for a mere six hours or so.

By the way, if you wish to leave a comment, click on the title of this article.  A comment box will appear at the bottom of the page.

Research! You Can Do It!

Students, writers, scientists, journalists, phd candidates, and shoppers all have something in common: RESEARCH.  Whether you are going to get fully into the trenches as you prepare a historical fiction novel or make your contemporary fiction glimmer with realism, research must be done.

There are two arguments I have heard.  The first says write what you know (which for some of us is seemingly limited) and the other says write what you want to know more about.  Yes, that’s the one for me.  As a Chicago native, I was always interested in the mystery of Chicago’s greatest disaster.  That led me to buy my first book on the Great Chicago Fire.  I thought it would be a fascinating setting for a children’s historical novel and that someone should write one.  But as a very busy teacher I certainly didn’t have the time or the know-how to do it.  Time rolled on by about a decade and I became a SAHM (stay at home mom) and my brain felt like was becoming mush.  I picked up another book on the Chicago Fire and wondered if I might be able to write something.  I read and read and read and the truth of the event could not be imagined.  The stories, the oddities, the humanity and lack of it, all stunning.  It’s a story that must somehow be told.  The research was molding the story.


Internet: Who doesn’t start here?  It’s a bit of a black hole and an enormous amount of time can be swallowed by looking for the information you seek.  But it will lead to many other great resources and pearls can be found.  It must all be measured, however, by other sources.  Anybody (ahem) can get online these days and write something!

  • One of my favorite web pages (more can be found on the Chicago Fire page of this website) comes from the Chicago History Museum.

Books: Put that library card to work for you!  There are books written on just about any topic you are interested in learning about.  If your library doesn’t have it, often you can get a hold of it with an interlibrary  loan.   (Just make sure you pick it up in a timely fashion or they will send it right back!)  And there’s always amazon and bookstores if you think it’s a book worth owning, or if you are an active reader that needs to highlight, underline, and write in the margins.  But don’t forget about cookbooks, almanacs, high school yearbooks, and titles that are popular to the locale of your story.

  • One on my bookcase: The Great Chicago Fire in Eye Witness Accounts

Newspapers: Holy Toledo how newspapers have changed over time!  In my review of articles from the Chicago Tribune in 1871 I was taken aback by how full the pages were and the great variety of stories I would happen upon.  Of course there was plenty of news, but there were also vignettes, etiquette lessons, humor.  News then was like news today, have to take it all with a grain of salt, but it definitely allowed me to tune into language and culture.

Interviews: incredibly intimidating for some, but one of the best sources for personal perspectives.  Thanks to Skype and the like, interviewing someone across country is easy.  I certainly had no survivors of the fire I could interview, but I sat down with a fireman, a horse aficionado, and historians for two prominent buildings in my story: The Palmer House and Old St. Pat’s Church.  It’s important to do as much research ahead of the interview as possible so that you can find out what you don’t know and ask educated questions.  Don’t make the person you are interviewing do all the work.  Bring something to the table, they are giving you their time as it is.

Travel: It makes all the difference in the world to go to the location your story will take place.  (If it is an invented setting – of this world – try to go somewhere that has similarities, it will give you a new perspective.)  I have spent many hours at the Chicago History Museum, but also writing on a bench outside of Union Station along the river – the locale of the first 10,000 or so words of my story.  I walked my MC’s neighborhood and got a sense of distance and noise.  I had to transport myself back in time, take away the concrete and highrises.  I’m still thinking about challenging myself to walk the path my MC takes.  I’ll need to do some training first.  I joke that my story is Pursuit of Happiness meets Backdraft.  My poor MC travels (mostly by running) somewhere between 15 and 20 miles over a three day period.  Should I walk in his shoes (minus the fire of course)?

TOOLS: apps that help

This is the first 4 rows of notebooks I have in the stack on research on the Chicago Fire.

This is the first 4 rows of notebooks I have in the stack on research on the Chicago Fire.  From Noteshelf

Noteshelf – by far my favorite app for recording research.  What I like about it: I literally use it like a collection of notebooks.  I can use a stylus or type.    As I researched, it’s hard to know what information I would find out and where it would lead me.  This made it incredibly difficult to organize my notes.  Reorganizing a notebook or stack of notebooks is a cinch.

Nine of the nineteen pages from my notebook on the Lull and Holmes fire.

Nine of the nineteen pages from my notebook on the Lull and Holmes fire.

There are a lot of pen colors, highlighters, and symbols.  There is also a nice variety of notebook covers and types of paper to use.  Every page of a notebook could have different paper if you wanted it to.  Make a stack of a series of notebooks to save space on the shelf.

On one page I can use a variety of colors, writing tools, graphics.  From Noteshelf

On one page I can use a variety of colors, writing tools, graphics. From Noteshelf

The only thing that either I haven’t figured out

or isn’t possible is how to copy text or pictures outside of noteshelf into the app.  But that’s why I also list the next two apps.

Evernote – I have used very little, but it does allow me to paste pictures and text from the internet.  For information on how to get organized using Evernote check out this blog by Michael Hyatt.

Trello – I just discovered this one.  It seems like it will be really great once I get the hang of it.  Positives: You can add other members to a board and they can add things to the research.  Great for projects that are collaborative (ie – co-author, or if you have an assistant – it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?).  You can have checklists, hyperlinks, upload video, moving cards between boards is super simple, the sidebar lets you see what others have done without going hunting.  And it’s free.  The negatives: I haven’t used it enough yet to know.

That’s it for now.  I would love to know other tips for research.  What works for you? Click on the comment link on the META side bar!

Next time, I’m going to take a break from writing about writing and share some interesting goodies from my research bag.

Til then,

Enjoy Playing with Words!