I felt so excited when Debra asked me to write an article for her blog. Then I went blank, and for a writer, that’s a really, really nasty feeling. Undaunted, I went for a walk, played some music, nibbled on some cashews, and stared out the window. Then it came to me! I would write the article tomorrow when my mind would be in a much more creative space. By then, ideas would come flowing in at jet speed, right? Wrong. SIGH . . . I had to put BIC (butt in chair) and get on with it.
So, let me tell you a little bit about myself, and how writing creepy, mystery stories for children began. I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. As a young child I lived in a two-storied old house that had a kitchen and a living room downstairs, and six bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs. Only one of the bedrooms and the bathroom had electric light so candlesticks had to be used for the other five rooms. My fears of that gloomy old house grew as I did, and at night after going to bed I would pull the covers over my head so I could drown out the house’s creaks and groans, and whistle and moans of wind through the walls. Not to mention the strange shuffling sounds in the hallway that I just knew were ghosts coming to get me.
Somewhere around ten years of age, I started fantasizing that perhaps as the house settled down for the night, it was trying to tell me stories––stories of what it had seen and heard over the years. I was astounded at such an idea and immediately my imagination began to run wild. A thumping sound on the stairs became a tiger and his Prince escaping from an invading army; the whistle through the walls was a girl singing on a ship sailing off to a magical land. There was no end to the ideas triggered in my mind by believing that the house was telling me its stories. And from that time on, I not only stopped fearing where I lived, but also grew to be quite fascinated with other old houses, knowing that they, too, held stories in their walls just waiting to be heard.
My favorite writer as a child was the English author Enid Blyton. I loved her Secret Seven and Famous Five mystery books, and I became an avid follower of those characters. I do believe it was this English writer that influenced me to eventually pen my first children’s novel, The Mystery at Marlatt Manor. At the time it was only intended to be a stand-alone story. I had no idea it would become so popular that everyone would want to read more about the individuals who lived in the small Virginia town of Cedar Creek that I had created. Based on this feedback and encouraged by my publisher, I began a second book, The Mystery of the Missing Ming and found it a lot of fun taking those same characters on yet another adventure. The Ming story will be released in August, and then I will finish the third book in the series. When I wrote the first book, I indicated that my main protagonist was a young girl who reluctantly discovers she has psychic abilities, so I have continued this paranormal slant in each of the other books, showing how this gift helps her solve the mysteries she encounters.
Although I love to write mysteries, I also like to write in other genres. Last year my historical fictional YA novel, Anni’s Attic was released by Vendera Publishing. The story took me about 15 years to complete, but it was a definite labor of love. The idea first came about when my friend and I began remembering having lived as cousins during the Civil War. Even though my memories of that life seemed vivid and clear, I still did extensive research for that time period. I flew to Georgia where the story takes place, went on plantation tours, and visited many Civil War historical places, such as cemeteries, and old homes (how could I miss not seeing an old home?). As with my mystery story, everyone is now asking when the sequel to Anni’s Attic is coming out! Something I hadn’t planned on at all!
One thing I have come to understand from the response received from readers, is that the possibility for sequels to your stories always exists, and it is important right from the start to create a good Bible of all your characters, their traits, their likes and dislikes, what happens to them, etc. In fact it’s critical you get everything correct with continuing characters because your readers will catch you out on even the smallest detail. Trust me, they forget nothing.
Thank you for reading this article. It’s been fun spending time with Debra’s readers. Do visit me on my web site when you have time.
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Anne Loader McGee is a Graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature, and is a long-standing member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). She has studied writing at the American Film Institute and the University of California and Los Angeles (UCLA). Anne has published numerous articles for both children and adults, and her stories have appeared in The Kids’ Reading Room of the Los Angeles Times. She is also the co-author of the Sing Out Loud series of singing books for children.
Her first novel, The Mystery at Marlatt Manor (
), became a finalist in the 2009 Bloom Awards while her latest publication, Anni’s Attic (
), won the Young People’s Division of the International Peace Award. Anne is originally from New Zealand and now makes her home in Southern California. You can visit her online at www.annemcgee.com for more information.
It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish) by Debra H. Goldstein
Recently, I listened to Barbara Cook’s rendition of the Cy Coleman and Dorthy Field’s signature song “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish” from 1973’s Broadway show, Seesaw. Forty years after the song debuted, the words remain true.
Whether one is writing a novel, short story, or poem, the process is the same. “It’s not how you go, it’s how you land.” Writing requires coming up with an idea, getting it down on paper, rewriting, possibly tossing out one’s original thoughts, and writing the piece again and again until the words flow. It often is a solitary process, but the sisterhood of writers have the ability to inspire and help each other.
The reality is “If you’re going to last, you can’t make it fast,…Nobody starts a winner, give me a slow beginner.” At Malice Domestic, I had the privilege of riding an elevator with Carolyn Hart. I’m a pretty confident person, but as the elevator went up, I stumbled over my words telling “Ms. Hart” how much I enjoy her books. During the conference, where she was honored with the Amelia Award, I heard how her writing career didn’t take off. Her first few books either were not published or failed to sell well, but she kept writing. When she became an overnight success, it had been a long night. Our paths crossed a number of times during the conference and at the Sisters in Crime breakfast. Ironically, we were in the elevator together again leaving the conference. This time, I congratulated “Carolyn” on her award and we actually laughed about spending the conference in the elevator.
Thinking back on the difference in my behavior during our elevator rides, I realize that the change in my attitude came from being impressed with her writing abilities and with her persistence and willingness to help other writers. Even during the hour interview tied to her award at Malice, she took the time to give a new writer a shout-out. She was the only one to do so. It takes a big person to share one’s limelight with others. Her work ethic and her generosity illustrate the premise that “Your final return will not diminish/And you can be the cream of the crop/It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish/And you’re gonna finish on top.”
Recently, I had a birthday, but I didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on being a year older because my calendar was so full of “special” birthday events. Besides attaining another year of age, I’m sure I gained five pounds during the celebrations! What was important to me during what became my birthday month, were the friends and family members who wanted to share it with me. Each lunch, dinner, cupcake with a candle, was delightful, but three things put it all in perspective for me: receiving the Mildred Bell Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama, an engagement party for my youngest daughter, and the unexpected death of a friend the day after he was part of a small, but joyful, birthday dinner party for me.
Three days before my birthday, I spoke the following words before almost four hundred people as I accepted the Mildred Bell Johnson award:
When Mildred Bell Johnson founded the first Girl Scout troop for African – American girls in Alabama and then worked diligently as a civil right activist, educator, Girl Scout district director, and assistant moderator of the United Church of Christ, she never dreamed that there would be an award named for her. She was doing what she believed was right for her community and for young women.
Today, I am humbled receiving the award named for Mildred Bell Johnson not only because of its namesake, but because of my admiration for the women who have received this award before me. They are a class of women whom I deeply respect for their integrity and their willingness to often forsake recognition while bringing others together to make a difference – or as Girl Scouts say – to leave a place better than we found it.
As a brownie, Girl Scout, and leader, I was taught and taught others to believe that we have a responsibility to be involved in any way we can contribute. I also learned that none of us do it alone – no matter how hard we work.
To digress for a moment, when my son, Stephen, was just beginning to learn how to print, he did something wrong and apologized by leaving a note on my pillow that he signed your little angle as he couldn’t spell angel.
I am honored and grateful today to accept this award, but it really is a reflection of the accomplishments and efforts for our community and its members by most of you in this room.
I thank the Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama for singling me out today; I thank my friends who listen and help me connect the dots whenever I get a hairbrained idea, and I thank my family – especially my husband, Joel, who for thirty years has supported me in anything I try to do and our four wonderful children, three of whom are here today. They, and all of you, are the angles that combine to make me whole. Thank you again.
At that moment, I was a little worried that receiving a lifetime achievement award at this age was premature, but I was excited to be joining a class of women I deeply respect. It was a perfect day.
A few days after my birthday, five couples got together for a “special” birthday dinner. We laughed as we shared good food, friendship, and an evening where work and pressures were forgotten as we enjoyed each other’s company. It was a weekday work night, but we ignored that fact and stayed longer than any of us meant to. As we compared notes the next day, everyone who had been there agreed, it was a time good memories were made.
We flew to Houston two days after the dinner to attend a shower for my daughter and her future husband given by friends of his parents. When we landed in Houston and I turned on my phone, I saw I had voicemails, texts, and e-mails asking me to immediately call two people. We all know that when messages say urgent, but don’t say why, it isn’t good. It wasn’t. One of our dear friends who had been at the birthday dinner had had a stroke and died. He hadn’t been ill. He wasn’t old. My husband and I stood in the airport shocked remembering humorous exchanges with him during the birthday dinner, plans he had made to go to a basketball game next season with my husband, and realizing that in a matter of hours the love of his life was now a widow. We walked to the car waiting for us in disbelief. As my husband made small talk with the father of my daughter’s fiancé, I called our friend’s wife and other friends and shared a moment of shock, sorrow, and “what can we do to help” with them. Then, my husband and I had to put on our game faces to enjoy the weekend with our daughter.
I have blogged before about my reaction to my daughter being in love (My Daughter is in Love – 9/23/12) and once again, I felt excitement and joy seeing how happy she is. Her happiness brought me flashbacks of when I fell in love and got engaged. As the weekend progressed, I couldn’t help but think about our friends who also had a perfect love that now had ended as I watched this young couple just beginning their lives together. Aloud, I wished them joy and happiness, but in my heart I prayed for them. It was a prayer that comes from knowing how important the angles are that make us whole and how fragile keeping them together is.