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Thursday's thing to love...

The Rich Writer: Thursday's thing to love...

The Rich Writer

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Thursday's thing to love...

...about being a writer: great books. Have I mentioned that I love books? I love the way they feel, the way they smell, the way they make me race through to find out the end of a great story (a la Harry Potter) or read slowly to savor the beautiful writing (a la The Bookthief.) I love....

Ahem. Sorry. Didn't mean to get carried away there.

Today, I want to tell you about a particular book: By the Sword, a nonfiction picture book written by Selene Castrovilla. It tells the story of Benjamin Tallmadge, a not particularly famous young man who lived and served during the Revolutionary War. Castrovilla's book paints a picture of the war through one man's story: the story of Benjamin Tallmadge and his beloved horse, Highlander.

I read this book because I am currently working on a project I hope to sell to the publisher, Calkins Creek, the history imprint of Boyds Mills Press. Carolyn Yoder, also history editor for Highlights for Children, is editor for the imprint.

In this book, Castrovilla does exactly what I want to do in my writing. She draws a fascinating story out of a primary source--Benjamin Tallmadge's personal memoir--and brings the story to life without compromising historical accuracy. I'm also trying to draw an exciting story out of a rambling journal and a few other primary sources. She takes the story of someone who isn't particularly famous, and uses it to tell a larger truth about the Revolutionary War. I'm also trying to tell the story of an ordinary young man in such a way that it tells a larger truth about life in frontier America.

How does she do it? First, she tells a very specific story with a beginning, middle, end, and specific events in between. That sounds simple--but it's not always that easy, especially when you have a pile of research material six feet deep! It took a great deal of artistry--and discernment--to choose exactly what scenes to portray in a story that spans several days (with several weeks' worth of backstory.)

Second, she brings each scene to life with vivid sensory detail: the feel of the musket against Benjamin's shoulder, the boom of cannon fire, the flash of muskets. Since present nonfiction-writing frowns on creating quotes for historical characters, she doesn't invent dialog; instead, she writes Benjamin's thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations in such a way that it reads like dialog. She writes questions that seem to create a window into Benjamin's mind, questions like "How could they even survive?"

If you're a writer of nonfiction for children, this is a great book to check out. Castrovilla sifts through her own six-foot-deep pile of research material (I'm guessing at the 6-foot part, but she definitely did her research!) to tell an exciting story that gives a snapshot of life during the Revolutionary War--in 32 pages. Besides, it's a great read!

:) Cheryl

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