Inspiration in Numbers


We’ve all heard there is “strength in numbers,” meaning that a community is more than the sum of its parts. But for writers there is also “inspiration in numbers,” especially when writers gather in a nurturing and dynamic community.

Every June, I gather with writer-friends at a house on a hill overlooking Penobscot Bay in Maine for a wonderful week of conversation and inspiration. We call it Mainely Writing. Writing is mostly a pretty solitary exercise. It takes focus and the ability to leave one’s everyday world to become immersed in the world of one’s story. It’s a hard thing to do with the distractions of everyday life.

But when a community of writers comes together, it’s magical. In our week in Maine, we talk about stories, we read stories, we discuss new stories that we have written. We laugh, we share, we learn. Our groups of writers changes a little from time to time. Family commitments and life changes mean that some members are absent while new friends join the circle. It’s part summer camp, part slumber party, and part school. We’ve formed a bond of trust; we are sisters in stories–a tribe.

We’ve been doing this together since 2005, and it’s truly the highlight of my year. I come away refreshed and ready to write. This year, we have challenged each other to keep that momentum by meeting daily and weekly writing goals and reporting back to our group. No shame is allowed when goals aren’t met, but plenty of praise and encouragement for all our little victories.

Next year we will move to a new location in a different state. We’ve talked about changing the name of the group, but we haven’t decided on anything yet. We will miss our house on the hill, but our community will remain intact.

Who is your “tribe”?

How do you draw inspiration from your community?


Stories for All

Today we honor and celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is fitting that we do so, but the work he did is still far from finished. Daily newspaper headlines declare it. Personal interactions in the cities and towns of all states in our country demonstrate it. Political rhetoric surrounding the current president and the campaign for the next one underline it.

And, sadly, the state of publishing of children’s literature perpetuates it. Today, Scholastic pulled a new book from circulation, A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Although it appears that the author, illustrator and editor had noble intentions in telling the story of Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef, the book created an outcry from readers offended by the story and the illustrations of smiling slaves. And “not intending to offend” is never a good enough reason to offend. I believe pulling the book was the right thing to do.

My friend and fellow writer Christine Taylor-Butler recently commented on the dearth of stories for black children on subjects other than slavery. “When I interact with local librarians the question always comes up ‘Why are the Black books always about civil rights and slavery?’ I replied, ‘That’s all publishing seems to want.’ Publishers say consumers won’t buy books with black characters. I respond ‘because you keep giving us more of what we’ve already said we don’t want.’”

Yes, children need to know about the history of slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese-American internment, the struggle for women’s rights, and the history of discrimination against many groups. But, as Ms. Taylor-Butler says, this is not the only story. Every day we can choose to find books with characters whose courage, kindness, humor, intelligence, love, and growth moves us and our young readers. Why do so few of those stories feature characters of diverse backgrounds? Why do publishers and illustrators seem to take for granted that a character not specifically designated as “ethnic” must be, by default, white?

There is a movement taking hold, and we who write, publish, and edit children’s books must sign on. Go to  for more about it. We must be a champion for writers who need to be heard, for children who need to read their stories. Those of us who come from a place of privilege (even when it may not feel like it) need to open our ranks and welcome other voices to the conversation.

Hundreds of books are published every year. There is plenty of room in the marketplace for books featuring great characters of all skin tones, ethnicities, family structures, genders and gender-identities, religions, socio-economic statuses, cultural traditions, and types of disabilities. Exposing children of all backgrounds to the richness of the human experience enriches us all.



Writing can be an emotional roller coaster. One day, I feel like I’m writing the next Newbery winner. The next, my muse has turned her back on me forever, and I worry that I’ll never have another idea in my life. For me, the best way to combat the writing blues is to connect with other writers, others who “get it.”

I’m fortunate to be a part of a small group of writers who together founded the Mainely Writing Workshop back in 2005. Each June we meet at a cottage overlooking Penobscot Bay. We hug, we laugh, we share our writing in our workshop, and together we celebrate the successes we’ve enjoyed in the last year. In 2014, Maine greeted our arrival with a rain shower, then treated us to the most beautiful rainbow we’d ever seen. We were certain that it would bring “rainbow magic” to our little group of writers–and it has!

When we met the following June, we had plenty of reasons to clink our wine glasses. And our “rainbow magic” continues. This June we will have many reasons to celebrate:

Theadora Gammans, published her third novel this year, A Song for Aura Lee. Several of us met Aura Lee back when we first met Thea, so it was a thrill for us to see this spunky little girl find her way into print.


Karyn Friedman-Everham, found a literary agent this year who will champion her wonderful poetry, novels, and early-readers.

Cathy Cultice Lentes, whose poetry has already been published in many venues, has a chapbook to be released this year. The title is Getting the Mail, and it will be out in March. And the beautiful cover art was created by Sally Stanton, another of our Mainely Writers.


Michelle Houts, who had two new books released in 2014, will share her first picture book, When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike, with the world this summer, and she has another five (five!) books currently under contract.

Nancy Roe Pimm, author of many nonfiction books, has a new book coming this spring: Flying Solo: The Jerrie Mock Story. And Nancy signed a book contract on December 31 for a another book.

Amy Gerstin Coombs finished her MFA program at Vermont College, and she has several completed novels ready to find homes in the publishing world.

Jenn Bailey began her MFA program at Vermont.  RAINBOW UPDATE: Jenn was awarded the Candlewick Scholarship which includes both a cash award and right of first refusal on Jenn’s picture book manuscript!  WAY TO GO, JENN!  

Ann Mack finished the full draft of her YA novel that has been her labor of love for a decade. She knows there is more work ahead, but she can now hold the full manuscript in her hands.

Tamera Will Wissinger, a 2015 Mainely Writer, has a picture book she will launch this spring: There Was An Old Lady Who Gobbled a Skink. 


Our good friend and mentor, Louise Hawes, was a contributor to the anthology Things I’ll Never Say. Her story “When We Were  Wild” is included along with other stories by some of the best writers today. Louise’s next novel, The Language of Stars, will be released this spring. And Louise, a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, will accompany a group of students to England this year.


I will have two literary biographies re-released in revised versions this spring. One is about Edgar Allan Poe; the other William Faulkner.

And, as if all this wonderful-ness is not enough–We have a debut novelist in our group! Tessa Elwood, who joined the Mainely Writers when she was still a college student, celebrated the launch of her first YA novel, Inherit the Stars, last month. Although most of our MW crew lives many miles away, they sent their best wishes to Tessa and celebrated with her.


Our group is diverse in many ways: we come from six different states; our ages range from 20s to 80s,  we come from big cities, farms, and small towns; we have writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Now before you conclude that this little group of writers came together as writing professionals, I’ll let you know that most of our members had not been published when they became a part of the group. And despite their successes, they have all endured the disappointments that come with rejections and non-cooperative muses. But they all share several important characteristics: they truly care about producing excellent literature; they are willing to work hard; they are willing to accept feedback from others and keep revising their writing to make it their best, and they love to encourage each other. And that in itself is worth celebrating!

In the Mood, part 2 (1942)

Now that one manuscript is out and about, making the rounds on its route to publication, I’ve turned my attention to my next project: a novel set in 1942. Most Americans are aware of the incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but few people are aware that some young Nisei (American born children of Japanese immigrants) were released from the relocation camps so that they could attend colleges in the Midwest.

But what was it like for the Nisei students and for their classmates? It’s a story that is begging to be told.

So here are my mood-makers:

  1. Music is an important part of my process. I listen to it while I write, and I listen to it while I think about writing. Big Band

I’m really enjoying the sounds of the era! Jimmy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, and Glenn Miller are my newest soundtrack. I imagine my characters dancing and enjoying this music while they go through their school days and dances.

2. Feet on the ground, imagination in the past

My story takes place at Park College, a place I’m quite familiar with. Although the campus has changed a lot in the decades since 1942, some of the same buildings remain. I love to explore the campus and let the ghosts of the past speak to me.


The archivist on campus has generously provided me with lots of original material from the period: school newspapers, yearbooks, news clippings, and more. In the years after their college days, some of the Nisei students provided long narratives describing their experiences at Park. These are a treasure-trove.

3. Living it like it was

Although I can’t step back to 1942, I have some wonderful resources to help me. One of my main characters is the same age as my mother was in 1942. Mom’s scrapbook provides me with some wonderful glimpses of the past. The house she grew up in was also an important part of my childhood, and some scenes in the book take place there.

But my “hands on” part of this book came unexpectedly:


This little gem is a Singer portable machine, commonly called a “featherweight.” It belonged to our aunt, and we discovered it after she passed away. One of my characters is a seamstress (as my mother was–and is). This item will be important to my story. She’s been cleaned, oiled, and is ready to go. Now I just need to find a few vintage patterns to help me stitch the stories of two characters together.

In the Mood (1855)

When it comes to fiction, I make mine historical. Maybe I’ll try other genres someday, but for now, I enjoy the experience of stepping back in time to create characters and tell their stories.

But I’ll admit it can be hard to step out of 2015 and firmly plant my feet in the soil of 1855. I’ve often wished for a time machine that would allow me to visit my setting as it was in that day.

Here are a few tricks I use to get myself into the mindset of my historical era:

1) Mood music

As I worked on my 1855 novels, I listened to music of the era. My good friends at Lone Chimney Films  hooked me up with a CD of music by the Freestaters that is from the era of my story. The music helps me focus on the era and how my characters might feel.

TBF_DVDCover (1)

2) Feet on the ground, imagination in the past

When I can, I like to visit the physical location of the story. I walk around, looking for things that were present at that time: buildings, historical markers, landmarks.

Here are a few from Lawrence, Kansas:


This is the Eldridge Hotel. In 1855 it was called the Freestate Hotel.



The cornerstone tells a little about the history of this important building. It was built in 1855 and then destroyed in 1956. The destruction of the hotel is an important part of my story.

3) Live it like it was

I love to visit museums that hold household items from the era. The kinds of things my characters would use in their homes, wear on their backs, do their work with.

The main character of my novel was the blacksmith’s apprentice. To find out what that would really be like, I visited Missouri Town 1855 and worked in the blacksmith shop with a re-enactor. I not only learned the tools and processes of blacksmithing, but I pounded hot metal and learned what muscles get sore from pumping the bellows.



This is a photo of the forge at MO Town 1855.

I also used a house at that site that became my vision of the house where my main character lived.


I used this house as my model for the house that Sam and Pritchard lived in.

I don’t know what process other writers use, but these are techniques that help transport me to the world of my novels-in-progress. It’s a fun experience!

Winner, winner! Chicken (turkey) dinner!


Yes, that’s right. I’ve been officially certified as a “winner” in this year’s NaNoWriMo [i.e. National Novel Writing Month]. This prestigious recognition goes to writers who produce 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. Once the text is written, it must be uploaded to be certified for word count. I managed to hit my word count on November 20.

And yes, it’s a big deal–to me.

I seem to do a lot more thinking about writing than actual writing on a daily basis. I have lots of reasons/excuses for that, including a full-time job and many other obligations in my life. [Gotta find out who wins The Voice!] NaNoWriMo is not about brilliant writing, it’s about production. It’s about setting a goal and making a commitment to reaching it. Sometimes I need that. Sometimes I need a concrete reason to write without too much thinking about it.

“But wait a minute, Debra,” you say. “November’s not over for another week.” Yes, that’s right. And I’m not yet to the end of my novel. And this week is Thanksgiving, with a trip out of town and several days away from home.

Excuse me, please. I need to get back to work.

The Reading-Writing Connection

It’s not a surprise that all the writers I know were voracious readers at a young age. They fell in love with words early. They gobbled up stories like candy. Some knew they wanted to be writers when they were children; others discovered it later when their own children were small.

And it’s not a surprise that the advice most often given to writers is Read. Read often. Read a lot. Then read some more. The more we read stories, the better we internalize our sense of story elements like pacing, tension, character development, conflict, description, etc. And intentionally “reading like a writer” helps me see how this writer made me cry, or how that one made me so angry I wanted to throw the book across the room because I identified so strongly with a character I felt her frustrations as my own.

When I talk to friends about a project I’m working on, they often give me suggestions of things I “ought to read.” Usually, they suggest a book in a similar genre, often one set in the same time period or with the same subject matter. I smile and nod, and sometimes even write down the titles, knowing full well that the books these well-intentioned friends have mentioned will most certainly NOT appear on my reading list any time soon. I don’t want that other plot or this other character to somehow sneak in through a side door of my consciousness and unwittingly take up residence in my story.

But continual reading for writers is essential as a way to refresh our thinking, to reboot, if you will. When I’ve hit a brick wall in my own work-in-progress, I find that reading helps me step away and refocus. I’ll choose a book in a genre quite different from what I write, just for the change of pace. It’s a little like the way the best ideas sometimes come when I’m driving, or in the shower, or just as I’m about to fall asleep. I’m thinking about something else, and then the idea I need just seems to appear, sneaking in the side door of my consciousness.

I recently finished a manuscript and sent it out to several writer-friends for their thoughts and comments. While I waited for their responses, I picked up a book I had been planning to read for several months. I devoured it, then began another. When I finished it, I started another. That little vacation from writing recharged my batteries and made me eager to begin my revision work some great feedback from others and with a fresh perspective as well.

When I finished the revision, I found myself in a bit of panic when I realized I had no idea what my next project would be. Luckily, I stocked up on new books over the holidays—so many that I had a hard time choosing which one to read first. But half-way through the third one, a new story idea began to sneak in that side door. She bears absolutely no relation and no resemblance to any of the stories I’ve read lately, but there she is, peering at me around the corner. I’m eager to get acquainted with her. We’ve chatted a bit. But she seems a little timid, and I don’t want to scare her off by pursuing her too quickly. Maybe I’ll just let her watch over my shoulder as I read for a while.

It’s a bloomin’ new year!

Seven years ago this week, my husband was admitted to the hospital and spent a few days in Intensive Care. During that hospital stay, he received a lovely blooming azalea plant. Both of them have survived and thrived since then. The azalea has upsized several times to bigger pots. It spends its summers on the patio and its winters by the glass sliding door in the basement.

Each spring, my husband plants annuals in the flower beds in front of our house. The colorful petunias, marigolds, and other flowers last through the summer, then die off after the first cold snap. But the perennials survive. They may go dormant during the winter, but they live on to bloom again, like this azalea. Our outdoor azaleas bloom big and pink every spring. This one gets a little extra help, since it has a warm place for the winter, and it rewards us with blooms several times a year–often when we least expect it.

Creativity is a lot like that. When it’s nurtured and encouraged, it will survive and flourish, even through the times in our lives when we deal with sadness, discouragement and other disappointments. 2013 has been a year of ups and downs for me, as it has for many people I know. I’ve enjoyed some very nice accolades and awards for A Voice for Kanzas; I’ve had good times with family and friends. But I also spent a chunk of 2013 helping my daughter to care for my father during the final weeks of his life. It was a time of sadness, but also a time that I will treasure for the bonding in our family. During those weeks, I wanted to write, I expected to write, but it just didn’t happen. Besides the continual care my father required, the sadness and sheer fatigue felt like “winter” to my creative mind. No matter how much I wanted to think about the novel I was writing, I just couldn’t.

But, thankfully, that winter passed. As my dad went forward on his own journey from this life, so I went forward from that time to my own next chapter. Spring came, and summer, and eventually I went back to my novel and completed the story.

So here’s to 2014. It’s pretty cold here in Missouri this winter, as it is in much of the U.S., but spring will come. May we all nurture our creative voices through our winters and bloom again…and again.

Hop! Hop!

No, it’s not Easter, but I’m hopping anyway. My fellow writer and good friend

Michelle Houts

has invited me to join in for a Blog Hop! Michelle lives in Ohio, and we have been friends through a wonderful group of writers who meet every summer in Maine. Michelle writes fiction and nonfiction for kids. You can learn more about Michelle, her books, and see her answers to our Blog Hop questions on her blog

To play our little hop, I need to answer the same questions, so here goes:

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished the first draft of a new novel! It has some of the same characters from A Voice for Kanzas, but it is the story of a different main character. It’s a story with a lot of action, and I’ve enjoyed working on it. But even though I’ve finished the draft, I know it isn’t really done. Right now, I’ve sent the draft to several writer friends for their comments. Soon, I’ll begin revising it. And revising is my favorite part!

How does it differ from other works in the genre?

I’ve used a narrative style for this book that is very different from what I’ve done in the past. It’s written in first-person point of view, in present tense, and told in the voice of a boy. All those are new for me, although they are not entirely unusual for the genre. One thing that is different from most books is the very short chapters. I’ve made each scene its own chapter, and I think it keeps the reader turning pages faster.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m fascinated by history, and I like imagining what it would be like to live in the historical eras I write about. Sometimes, a character steps out and begins whispering a story to me, and I just can’t resist it. What often emerges is a story that, even though it takes place in 1856 in my novel, could just as easily be a story of a person today. The inner struggles of that character, his hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, are the same as those of any other person. And even though the story takes place in 1856, it has themes that are relevant to readers today: family, loss, violence, peer pressure, etc. I love exploring characters and telling their stories.  And I love helping readers experience history through my books.

What is the hardest part about writing?

Writing the first draft is always the hardest part for me. I struggle with plotting the events of the story. It’s hard for me to write without at least an outline of the story, but sometimes a chapter will take a really unexpected turn and then I have to throw the outline away and make a new plan. Once in a while I take a wrong turn in the story and wind up on a dead end. Then I have to back up and figure out where it went wrong. No matter what I think the story may be, my characters seem to have their own ideas about it. They are usually right, and so I have to go along with them for the ride.

So now it’s my turn to tag some writers!  I’ve asked a couple of my writer-friends to share their answers to our questions.

Hop on over to  To learn more about Australian writer

Sherryl Clark

I met Sherryl at Hamline University, where we were students. Sherryl has written lots of books for kids of all ages, and she also teaches writing. You’ll enjoy exploring her blog and her website.

And one more hop will land you at to visit

Ann Ingall

Ann and I have been friends for many years. She’s a poet and has numerous books and magazine publications to her credit. She’s one of the most prolific writers I know! While you’re there, click around and enjoy Ann’s website!

A Notable honor!

A Voice for Kanzas  is sporting a new look!

That fancy gold medallion signifies recognition as a Kansas Notable Book! I’m thrilled that the awards committee of the Kansas Center for the Book has chosen A Voice for Kanzas as one of the fifteen books to be honored this year.

As the author, the award means many things for me. Of course it’s wonderful to have the affirmation of a prestigious award, and inclusion on a list with fourteen really worthy books. I’ll be honored at an awards ceremony in September. I’ll be a presenter at the Kansas Book Festival. I may be invited to visit schools, libraries, and other groups to talk about the book.

But the greatest joy for me is that this honor may result in recommendations from teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers who can put the book into the hands of readers of all ages. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what all writers want more than anything.