Quabbin, A History and Explorer’s Guide

By Michael Tougias
On Cape Publications, 2002

Writers write for different reasons. For some writers, like Elizabeth George, it is “all about the beauty of our language.” For other writers, like me, it tends to be about the research. I just can’t get enough of it. I enjoy getting into a topic, uncovering primary sources, rooting around in musty library basements, meeting people who can tell me a little bit about the world that I didn’t know before. For me, writing is simply the best way to share all the incredible information I find while researching.

A good example is my current work-in-progress, a middle-grade historical novel set in Prescott, Massachusetts. Prescott no longer exists; it was dis-incorporated in 1938 to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, one of the world’s largest manmade reservoirs of drinking water. Prescott’s unique history, however, and the dynamics of its demise make wonderful fodder for a novel. And so I have spent a great deal of time getting back to Prescott, through books and photographs and historical societies and museums and field trips and interviews with folks who once lived there. It has been a compelling journey, and today’s book is the one that set me on course.

QUABBIN contains a thorough introduction to the history of the Swift River Valley and the events leading up to its flooding. Readers get an overview, albeit a brief one, of the Quabbin towns, their taking by eminent domain, and the people who were displaced in the process. It is a fascinating history, even if you don’t live in Massachusetts. Mr. Tougias juxtaposes historical narrative with an explorer’s guide, strange as that may seem. The second half of the book contains maps, descriptions and hiking instructions for the greater Quabbin area.

All of this is meant to explain, I guess, how hard I am working on my new novel … and why my day-long hiking trips are NOT procrastination. It’s research!


Leonardo the Terrible Monster

By Mo Willems
Hyperion Books for Children, 2005

I gave a talk last month to the Society of Professional Communicators in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was my first experience addressing an audience as a writer of children’s books, and I was quite nervous about it. I over-prepared, which is to say I agonized for weeks over what to say and how to say it. Two days before the event I practiced my talk several times: first to my seven-year-old son (who was home sick from school … poor, poor boy!), and then to my good friend Dawn, and then, for lack of other handy victims, to the bedroom mirror. The day before the event I was feeling quite comfortable. I was ready. And because there were still twelve hours before the talk, my mind began to wander. It occurred to me as I dropped off to sleep that night that my opening was a little weak. Perhaps I could start my presentation differently? Perhaps there was a way to draw my audience in more fully from the start? By morning I was incorporating a whole new beginning into my presentation. (Alas, this is my very strange modus operandi. I over-prepare for presentations because I cannot bear last-minute tension and frenzy. And when I am prepared I create last-minute tension and frenzy anyway. It is crazy.)

Anyway, the main point of my presentation was that children’s books have a lot to offer adults. My big last-minute idea was to start the talk with a children’s book. I wanted to draw this roomful of adults into my world, to get them excited about books for children. And so I read them one of my favorite new picture books: LEONARDO THE TERRIBLE MONSTER, by Mo Willems.

Like all Mr Willems’ picture books, LEONARDO THE TERRIBLE MONSTER grabs the reader from the title page. Leonardo the terrible monster? Why is Leonardo so terrible? Is he terrible BAD, as in he is a scary, scary monster? Or is he terrible GOOD, as in he is terrible at being scary and so is actually good? And where did he get that name, anyway? As I had hoped they would be, my audience was enthralled. They stayed with me page-to-page, laughed in the appropriate places, and since displaying the art spread-by-spread gave me ample time to assess the audience, I could see they were not fidgety or bored. When I let loose the final “BOO!”, that room full of professional communicators actually cheered.

It was a dream opening and worth all the tension and frenzy. (Thank you, Mr. Willems!) My presentation was well-received and, more importantly, I am more convinced than ever that children’s books really do have a lot to offer adults. So, find yourself a copy of LEONARDO THE TERRIBLE MONSTER and read it to the children in your life. Heck, pick it up and read it to the adults in your office. It’s a great book.



Oh, dear.

There is a major typo in my first blog entry. I could just go back and fix it, but that would be too easy. Instead I have decided to confess “live” that I am not twenty-six, as I implied in that first entry. (The diary incident happened when I was ten, and I told you that was sixteen years ago.) Actually, I haven’t been twenty-six for about ten years!


Where does the time go?


Write Away

HarperCollins, 2004

One of the works-in-progress that thrills me the most these days is a middle-grade historical novel. I carried the idea for this novel around with me for a year or more before I felt bold enough to put any of it on paper. Then I took one month of early mornings (5 to 7am for the month of November … otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month) and wrote the entire novel. Okay, not quite the entire thing. But I wrote a solid draft and when it was finished I liked it enough to begin worrying. Could I pull this off? Me? A novel? Sure, I can write. Sure, I have read a lot of novels. But could I pull together these parts of myself and create a work of long fiction worthy of publication?

The worrying vexed me, so I put the novel away and worked on other things. And then at Christmastime I stumbled across Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY at the bookstore. I bought a copy for a friend. In a moment of optimism, I bought a copy for myself. My fried says she liked it. I loved it.

Elizabeth George’s book is an easy-to-read overview of the elements of fiction: character, setting, and plot. Throughout the text are examples, taken from contemporary and classic works, demonstrating viewpoint, voice, and dialogue. This was all useful, but it was the second half of the book that gave me the courage to take my first draft and fashion an actual novel out of it. In this half of the book, Ms. George outlines her personal approach to novel writing. Her process is involved, intense, anal, and absolutely my cup of tea.

And so I am back to waking before dawn and creeping into my office to work on my first novel. I began by working on character sketches and I have been blown away at the insights this simple exercise has given me. The plot has evolved, the characters have gained dimension, and the story has taken a new and firmer shape. I am ready to, ahem, write away.

Wish me luck!


Shiloh Season

By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996

Happy Patriot’s Day!

Today was the first day of April Vacation Week. The kids were home, the sun was out, and very little writing was done. On the upside, a good deal of gardening was accomplished and everyone is tired in that give-me-some-dinner-and-put-me-to-bed sort of way. Don’t you just love spring?

Vacation Week days in this house often begin with a book, and today was no exception. The kids and I finished SHILOH SEASON, the sequel to Naylor’s Newbery award-winning novel SHILOH. As with the first book, this one got us talking about some truly important stuff … right and wrong, big lies and little lies, people who are mean, and the sometimes difficult things that make them mean. These are big topics for little kids, and I loved how Naylor hid them in this enjoyable–and sometimes intense–story. We talked for a good while after the book was done, and although we didn’t agree on everything (my sons thought it was okay for Marty Preston, the eleven-year-old protagonist, to keep things from his parents and my daughter thinks it would be a good idea for us to get a dog), it was good to sit and hear each other for a while.

My favorite exchange in the book was one between Marty and Doc Murphy, the town doctor. Marty confesses to Doc that he has done something he knows is wrong. The problem is that Marty believes it was the right thing to do. Doc tells him, “If folks know what’s right and wrong for themselves, I’ve no quarrel with that. And we’ve all got to obey the law. But beyond that, what’s right in one situation may be wrong in another. YOU have to decide. That’s the hard part.”


SAVING SHILOH is the third and final book in the Shiloh trilogy; we’ll start it in the morning. For now my little monkeys need some sleep…


Big Slick

BIG SLICK, by Eric Luper
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Coming Fall 2007

Next to my own publication journey, the most exciting part of my writing life over the past year has been watching this novel grow from a 1500 word short story idea into a gritty and compelling novel about a teenager flirting with the addictive world of high stakes poker. BIG SLICK is the debut young adult novel of my friend and critique partner, Eric Luper and you should all buy it the moment it becomes available. I am serious … it is a great read.

Eric and I met in the “Manuscript Exchange” area of the SCBWI discussion boards. This was several years ago, long before folks over there started posting entire manuscripts online. (Do they realize that anyone willing to fork over $60.00 can visit that board? Critiques from the mouths of trusted colleagues can hurt … those from the fingers of anonymous strangers can kill. At least that is my humble opinion.) In any event, Eric posted a rather snotty advertisement for a manuscript exchange … I seem to recall it included the words: “no fluff please.” I’m not the fluffy type, so I offered to critique his work in exchange for honest feedback on my own manuscript. We swapped manuscripts, traded critiques, and parted ways. Several months later, however, when another writer friend and I decided to start our own online critique group, we asked Eric to join us. We three have been working together for two and one-half years now, and it has been a most productive union.

So, if you are interested in writing books for children and young adults, check out the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If you visit their online manuscript exchange, beware of open critiques, demand “no fluff”, and hand-pick some compatible folks to work with. If you are lucky, you will find the perfect critique partner. If you are very, very lucky, s/he will teach you a thing or two about craft. If you are truly blessed, you will witness the emergence of a new star.


Tracking Trash

Good moring, and welcome to day two of my blog. I think it is high time we got down to business. The business, of course, is books.

I am a book person. I am fascinated by them. I am in love with the idea of them. I read books constantly and across genres (although I certainly have my favorites). I write books constantly and across genres (although I have my specialties). I buy them, I borrow them, I loan them, I praise them and I criticize them. Books are an essential part of my life and it is only fitting, therefore, that I build this blog around the books in my life.

The book I would like to talk about first is called TRACKING TRASH: FLOTSAM, JETSAM, AND THE SCIENCE OF OCEAN MOTION. Haven’t heard of it? Don’t worry … that is because it will not be published until Spring 2007, and because the the marketing machine behind its debut has not yet launched. How do I know about it and, perhaps more importantly, why do I want to talk about it? Well, because I wrote it, of course!

TRACKING TRASH is my first book for children and it will be published by Houghton Mifflin Company as part of their “Scientists in the Field” series. Writing this book has been an amazing experience, from the beachcombing trips to Washington, to the research cruise on the Pacific Ocean, to the editing process, to my first-ever struggle with writer’s block, to the photo research, to the design. That is as far as the experience has gone so far; the book is currently in the hands of a book designer who is incorporating my text and the photographs into an irresistible non-fiction book for middle graders. I can hardly wait for a glimpse of the final layout.

You can learn more about TRACKING TRASH and my research trips at my website (www.loreegriffinburns.com). And I suspect this particular book will appear in this blog fairly frequently. It is, after all, one of my favorites!



Hello … and welcome to my blog.

This is my very first entry and I am entirely unconvinced that anyone is going to read it. Still, I feel nauseous. The very idea of keeping a journal or a diary makes my stomach ache. This wasn’t always so. When I was ten I wrote constantly in a baby-blue diary with a tiny golden lock on the side. I kept the tiny golden key on a chain around my neck. As it turns out, the key was unnecessary for opening the diary, a fact brought to my attention by a girl named Cathy, who was my babysitter, and who broke into my diary. Need I tell you that I was devastated? I’d like to say that Cathy felt remorse upon being caught, and that I forgave her, and that we are now great friends who laugh over the entire episode. She didn’t, I didn’t, and we aren’t.

In any event, here I am, sixteen years later, keeping another diary. Oh, and publishing it for all the world to see. I’d say I’m over it, wouldn’t you? Besides, I did learn some important lessons from the diary debacle, and I think they will keep me on track with this blog:

First, I will hide my blog carefully, at least until I am ready for it to be seen. (If you are reading this, then you are one of a small handful of trusted souls who are privy to its existance. Or else a friend of one of those souls. Or a truly interesting person … seriously, how did you find me?)

Second, I will write in my blog only when I have important things to say about my writing career. (I’ll talk about the road to publication, my first book, and the new projects I am working on. I’ll also post information about upcoming school and library visits, presentations, and writing life news.)

Third, I will never, ever, EVER write the names of boys I like in my blog. (Enough said.)