Friday, May 23, 2014

Writing Historical Fiction at 68!

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and ask myself what made me decide to write historical fiction. It’s a tough slog.

I keep searching for ways to describe what the process is like, and the closest I can come is that it is somewhat like setting up a loom and weaving fabric. 

First the weaver  has to string up the warp, the “background” of threads that runs longitudinally up and down .  Only then can the weft be threaded horizontally through the warp to make the cloth. I think of the historical research,  the “real “ story, as being the warp.  The weft is the fictional story I weave into the historical background.

It’s very tricky work, as I don’t want to have large, indigestible chunks of “history” cropping up: I want to keep it as the smooth, knot-free foundation of the fictional bits.

Anyway, the last time I started writing a historical fiction novel for kids, I was 38. (The Riddle of Penncroft Farm was actually published when I was  43.) 

Now I am 68 and I’m finding quite a difference in the way my brain is working these days. The fictional part of this task is still quite easy for me (“as the sow pisses”, as Mozart used to say of his creative process - not that I consider myself in his league, but the principle is the same). I notice however, that the historical background is much harder for me to keep in mind as I write. This means I spend a great deal of time checking and re-checking the historical facts as I go along.  Annoying, but there is it.

One way I am coping with this problem is by dividing my story into sections, attempting to keep the historical bits relevant to each section available in my head while I tackle each one. This seems to work pretty well. In a way, this feels more like quilting: doing separate pieces and them stitching ‘em together.

Hmmm.  Now I'm not sure if I'm weaving or quilting.  Or both. Oh, well, enough with the metaphors.

Back to work.



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Claims to Fame/Story Ideas

Many people ask writers “where do your ideas come from?”

I usually answer  "from all over the place". For the story I am working on now, entitled A Buss from Lafayette,  however,   I can pinpoint when and how the key idea for the story came into my head.

In 1997, my mother and I went on a Jane Austen Society of North America tour of Jane Austen sites (Chawton,  Bath,  London,  Lyme, etc.).  We spent a lot of time riding on a tour bus with other members of JASNA, chatting about Jane Austen (a bit competitively) and telling stories to pass the time as we travelled, somewhat in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. (We did actually go very close to Canterbury when we visited Jane Austen’s brother's estate in Kent.)  I hauled out one of my own favorite NON Austen anecdotes to contribute.  I told everyone how my eighth grade teacher, Maybelle Hettrick, had lived in Lawton, Oklahoma as a young child, homesteading like Laura Ingalls Wilder.  When Geronimo was jailed there,  Maybelle’s mother took the little girl, her hair in pigtails, to see him, pointing out he was a great leader of his people. Geronoimo reached through the bars to shake her hand, then patted her on the head, and said “I had a daughter who wore her hair that way.” 

I made a point to shake hands with  Maybelle many times, so that I could say I had shaken the hand that shook the hand of Geronimo. (I also made sure to shake hands with my kids, and will also do so with my grandsons, so they can make this claim as well!)

After I told this story on the bus, an older woman named  Rita spoke up. “Well,  I  have been kissed by someone who was kissed by someone who was kissed by Lafayette.” It turns out that when her great grandmother,  Sally Allen, was 7 years old, she presented a bouquet of flowers to Lafayette when he went through her town, (Northampton, Massachusetts) on his triumphal tour in1825.  In about 1891, Sally made a point of kissing her new granddaughter, Agnes. When Agnes grew up, married, and gave birth to Rita in 1919, she made a point of kissing Rita over the years and telling her she had been kissed by someone who’d been kissed by someone who’d been kissed by Lafayette.

As soon as I heard this, I immediately raced down the aisle on the bus and insisted Rita kiss me, which she did!  

As soon as I was kissed by someone who was kissed by...well, you know...  I realized I had to learn about Lafayette’s triumphal tour and write a story about a young girl he might or might not have kissed en route.

It has only taken me seventeen years to accomplish this! That is, of course,  because it is not just a story about a kiss (or buss, as they used to say).

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Thoughts About Non Elf Writing!


My Izzy Elves have twitter and blogging accounts telling the world what is going on in the Izzy Elf Section at the North Pole, but I thought it was high time to do a blog of my very own, i.e. a Non Elf Blog about all of my writing that does NOT feature folks with pointy ears.

As you might know (or not) I have been writing since 1980, and I have a number of published works out there.  I started by writing a series of three fake Jane Austen books with a friend, Cathy Allen, which were published in 1983 (for details on all my writing and books, or to BUY any, please go to my Author's Guild website at

I then wrote a historical novel for young readers about the American Revolution, called The Riddle of Penncroft Farm.  This was published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich 25 years ago as of this August.  All the awards etc. it won are also on the above website.  It has never gone out of print, and has sold over 130,000 copies since its publication. (My husband counted them all on my royalty statements.) Harcourt is now owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which released an e-book version of Riddle in February, 2014.

For the last several years, I have been working on and off on another historical novel for young readers.  This story, A Buss from Lafayette, is set in the year 1825 in the small New Hampshire town where I live .  Two years ago I was working very hard on this story, and had completed about 1/3 of it, when I received news that my brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  I set down the manuscript on that day, May 29, 2012 in order to help take care of him.  He passed away ten months later.

Because of my involvement with my brother, I was unable to continue with my historical novel.  Writing historical fiction is a difficult task.  Instead, I turned to writing short, rhyming stories about some of Santa's elves.  For some reason, this is easy for me to do, and it was a great distraction from the tragedies of real life.  Last year I found illustrators and published the first three of these Christmas story poems, entitled  Tizzy, the Christmas Shelf Elf; Blizzy, the Worrywart Elf; and Dizzy, the Stowaway Elf. These are all available as e-books, paperbacks, and audiobooks. (You can find them, again, via my website  I am happy to say that the first two, about Tizzy and Blizzy, are winners of the prestigious Mom's Choice Award.  I am also delighted to announce that last week, Dizzy was Story Monster Approved. All three have received terrific reviews.  My favorite came from the father who wrote that his young son, who hates to read, picked up the Dizzy story and read it cover to cover.  Hooray!

On May 15, 2014, I completed the fourth elf story, called Frizzy, the S.A.D. Elf.  Illustrations are underway and I hope to release it by mid summer.  I don't plan to write any more elf stories until 2015.

I have now picked up my Lafayette manuscript to work on again, after a hiatus of exactly two years.  I am planning to finish it this summer.  I'll keep you posted!


Dorothea Jensen