Category Archives: Career advice

Why Middle-grade?

My tenth book, STREETCAR TO JUSTICE: HOW ELIZABETH JENNINGS WON THE RIGHT TO RIDE IN NEW YORK, will be my first for middle-grade readers. Other than one picture book back in 2003, all of my books have been for adults (although, interestingly, they are appropriate for YA – young adults – and have won awards in that category.)

Why middle-grade for STREETCAR TO JUSTICE? Because it’s the right audience.

And, yes, I had to adapt my writing style, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

For years, librarians, teachers, and parents have asked me to write a nonfiction book on a topic that would appeal to middle-grade readers. This is the age group, variously described as somewhere between 8 and 13, that is between two worlds. They have outgrown picture books but may not be ready for some of the content found in young adult books.

The story of Elizabeth Jennings seems perfect for them. I’d been researching this forgotten story and the immense historical context of the era, New York in the 1850s, as a hobby of sorts for many years. (Yes, this is a journalist’s idea of a hobby!) Elizabeth Jennings is an inspiring character whose story was similar to Rosa Parks, although it happened a century earlier and in the North.

It was over lunch with an author-friend who writes middle-grade books that the idea of turning boxes of research on Elizabeth Jennings into a book took root, however. When I mentioned my ongoing research, my friend set down her fork. “You need to wrap that up and get it published!” she said. “People need to know that story. And it’s perfect for middle-grade!!”

I went home and got to work. It took several months to write the proposal but my agent was able to sell it quickly. This was followed by a year of writing, locating historical images to go with my text, coming up with a title – and so on.

In January, the book will be published. I’ll always be grateful to the librarians, teachers, parents – and especially my author-friend – for giving me a nudge!

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How to Stay Focused During Times of Great Change

The news has been breaking at an astonishing pace since Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidential election. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Trump and the Republican Congress, it’s a time of turbulence. If you’re an artist of any sort, it can be distracting.

At the same time, it’s vital that we all pay attention. As an American citizen, I know that’s part of my responsibility.

What helps me to maintain my focus is deliberately tuning out the noise, because that’s what a lot of it is. There’s a whole lot of shoutin’ going on, and although I want to stay informed, much of what passes for public discourse is pointless and hurtful.

I avoid public places, such as certain restaurants, that have a television turned on all the time. Who needs that? Doctors’ waiting rooms can be a problem, though I’ve learned that if you ask, the staff will often let you turn it off or change the channel, especially if you consult with others in the waiting room first.

It helps to remember that some of the commentators on radio and television are not journalists but agitators. They are there for one purpose: to make money. By stirring us up they are using us.

Social media is another place where over-the-top, disturbing language has increased tenfold. I’m interested in different viewpoints. I will stop reading posts that aren’t civil, however. Anger and strong feelings are okay but if you bully people, I’m not interested, and if I get too upset, it ruins my muse!

Newspapers are still the best place to find good, solid information. Plus, you can absorb that information at your own pace.

But one last suggestion from personal experience: Don’t read the newspaper before going to bed! The speed of change is unsettling right now, regardless of your political views. You’ll end up tossing and turning instead of getting your much-needed REM sleep, and your writing process the following day will be disrupted.

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Five Questions for Audrey Vernick, Author of Books for Young Readers

I met author Audrey Vernick fourteen years ago when she was working on her first book, BARK AND TIM: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, written with her sister, Ellen Glassman Gidaro, and illustrated with the paintings of Mississippi folk artist Tim Brown. Since that book’s publication her career has exploded: There are now a baker’s dozen of Audrey Vernick books with more on the way. She will be among the faculty this July in Helen, Georgia at a week-long WOW Writing Retreat.

Q. You have two new books in the stores right now – THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET (Clarion Books, March 29), which is nonfiction, and a fiction picture book with the delightful title, I WON A WHAT? (Knopf, April 12). Would you tell us a little about these two very different books and how they came about?

A. I am a fan of baseball history, but not in a statistics way. I love the stories. THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET is my third nonfiction book about baseball. The second was titled BROTHERS AT BAT, a true story about a team comprised of the 12 Acerra Brothers of Long Branch, NJ. When I was working on that book, I was in touch with the director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame who mentioned something about an all-sister softball team. When I asked for more information on that, the file was nowhere to be found! But he suggested I check out the Bobbies, a Philadelphia women’s baseball team (named for the hairstyle all players shared).
Edith was the team’s star player. When she was only ten years old, she was playing shortstop on a professional team! She was a true phenom, grabbing all the headlines from her much older teammates (which was not her intention. That girl just loved to play). It’s possible I became a tiny bit obsessed with Edith when I saw a photograph of her. I remember when I showed it to you, you said she looked like a cross between Scout Finch and Mary Pickford. Thinking about Edith’s fierce determination consistently impresses me and fills me with awe. I could talk about her all day.
I WON A WHAT? is a story about a kid who has always wanted a pet. He talks his parents into letting him keep whatever he wins at the goldfish booth at a carnival. And then he wins a whale. I remember having the idea for this one–written as “Kid tries to win goldfish but wins whale–which may be the best synopsis I have ever written. (It’s not my strong suit.)
The challenge came on, say, page five. He won a whale. Now what?
I needed a little spark of inspiration to help me find the rest of the story. So I started reading about people’s experiences interacting with whales. Many people wrote, in describing whale-watching expeditions, of having the feeling that they were being watched carefully by the whales. Somehow, that little observation was a spark for me—it helped me understand the friendship, based primarily on watching and understanding and thinking, between the boy and his pet. And I got lucky with this book—the ending (which can be such a hard thin) just came out my fingers without me even thinking about it. And I think it’s my favorite ending of all the books I’ve written.

Q. What is it about writing for young readers that appeals to you?

A. I am sure it has to do with the connection I felt to the books I loved as a child. My love for those books—Ursula Nordstrom’s THE SECRET LANGUAGE, Louise Fitzhugh’s HARRIET THE SPY, France Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN and many others—was akin to the love you feel for a real best friend. I was a serious re-reader in those days. I have always been one to read purely for pleasure, never analytically, but I believe a brain begins to sort things out, to understand structure, when you reread books, particularly when you’re young (and your brain isn’t yet cluttered with lyrics to every Beatles song). Without having to give it thought, you start to understand, intuitively, how a story is told when you reread books. But I digress. I wanted to say that with THE SECRET GARDEN, I must have read the scene in which they first discover that garden hundreds of times, awed by the way words created magic.

Q. I’m aware from writing a picture book myself that there’s more to creating a book for young readers than many people might realize. It takes a special skill set. What are the easiest, as well as the most challenging parts of the process for you?

A. I can hold an entire picture book in my head, something I cannot do with novels (though I’ve met people who can). The easiest thing I think is that it is not impossible to go through the entire writing and revision process pretty quickly. I’ve had that happen maybe three or four times. It’s a great feeling. Of course, I also have some books started that I’ve been unable to finish. Because there is a precision to good picture books—nothing extraneous. No room for fat. Beginning, middle and end, just like with any book.
With my nonfiction picture books, I always talk to kids about the responsibility of taking a whole life–one in which something happened to the subject every day of her life, for many, many decades–and boil that down to a 32- or 40-page book with many big pictures. It can be daunting. You write nonfiction too, so you know the sense of responsibility that comes with writing about real subjects. It’s a formidable task.

Q. If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing for a living?

A. If my sister Beth hadn’t gone to law school, I think I might have—but I saw how miserable it made her and ruled it out. I did public relations for public schools and libraries as my last full-time job. I didn’t mind the writing but I really didn’t care for the part that felt like sales. There’s a good chance I’d be a teacher—there are many in the family, and on my school visits it’s kind of like being Teacher for a Day.

Q. I’ve never met an author who didn’t have pets. Can you tell us about your two dogs?

A. Rookie, our 15-year-old dog, is officially a miniature labradoodle but he’s not that miniature. He has lived more than a cat’s nine lives, having ingested so many things—especially socks—not intended for dogs. He has had surgery for sock removal, wears a brace on walks now for the CCL he tore last winter, and is notorious for finding my purses and eating whatever he finds contained therein. He’s a bit of a grumpy old man but oh, does he love the people he loves.
Hootie’s four and one of the most affectionate dogs I’ve ever known. She was a rescue near death (parvovirus) when we adopted her as a puppy. She’s three-quarters poodle and one-quarter golden retriever. She’s very funny but lacks short-term memory which can lead to extended barking riffs when people she doesn’t know reenter the room they were just in. She’s my daily walking buddy. When Rookie comes along, it’s more like grazing. They both love to eat grass.
Thanks for inviting me to visit, Amy! It was fun!

To learn more about Audrey, visit her website at
She’s also on Facebook at
and Twitter @yourbuffalo

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Advice for Aspiring Novelists: Where Great Characters Come From

The most frequent question I’m asked when I’m on book tour or lecturing at a university is––Where do the ideas for your fictional characters come from?

Often, the person asking the question is an aspiring writer who is struggling to create a main character who is believable and consistent.

Here is what I advise: Why not start by looking around you?

We have all encountered people in our lives that are memorable, intriguing, and flawed but likeable. Think of all the people you’ve known who had a “larger than life” personality – a teacher, neighbor, or maybe a member of your church when you were growing up. (One caveat: When writing about a real person, depending on a variety of circumstances, you may need permission. It’s always wise to check with an attorney.)

Many authors of fiction discover that their best work is drawn from either real life experiences, their own or someone else’s. For my novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society, I had only to look as far as my own mother-in-law, Jackie, who was the type of person wryly referred to as “a piece of work.”

Jackie was a beautiful, opinionated, infuriating, and utterly charming woman. In 1962, long before I met her, she’d had a difficult time adjusting when her husband relocated the family from Boston to a small, sleepy Southern backwater in Florida. She managed to upset the status quo almost the moment they arrived.

Having spent the formative years of my childhood in South Carolina and my young adulthood in Florida, I had no difficulty picturing Jackie’s unfortunate (and at times hilarious) missteps, when told about them years later.  Before she passed away in 2004, she told me some of these stories. A few of them I learned from my husband (her son). My favorite – which I used as a launching point for my novel – was how in real life she started a late night radio show, which she called “Miss Dreamsville,” and scandalized the town (although by today’s standards it was G-rated).

Of course, there are many fictional events and characters in my novel as well. I invented the idea that Jackie started a book club; as far as I know, she never did. The book club was necessary, however, because it gave me a sphere in which to have Jackie interact with others in the community.

As much as I love all of my characters, Jackie-the-real-person gave me a great place to start. It was she who sparked my imagination and led me to tell a much larger story.

Sometimes, inspiration is closer at hand than one might think.

(This essay was written by Amy for Southern Writers Magazine. It appeared on May 15, 2015.)

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Feeling Supported and Loved (and a Little Anxious)

September 8 used to feel like a long time in the future.

But not so much anymore.

That’s the publication date of my new novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Lost Heiress of Collier County.

The book is squarely in the production phase. Right now I am reviewing what are called “first-pass pages.” This is the first time I’m seeing the book after it’s been typeset and formatted.

In other words, it looks like an actual book, not manuscript pages.

Each step is delightful. You might think by now I would be jaded, since this will be my ninth book and second novel. (My first seven books were nonfiction.)

But one thing that is different this time around is that I’ve already made the big leap from nonfiction to fiction, and miraculously survived. And, because the second book is a sequel, I’m not building my readership from scratch.

This gives me a little more confidence, but don’t get me wrong. Anxiety is part of the package when you write from your heart and then share it with the world.

At least, thankfully, the “pre-orders” are very good. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with publishing jargon: The print run, or number of books that is published, is determined in part today by the number of books pre-ordered on Amazon and elsewhere. When a book has a large number of pre-orders, it has what is called momentum, and the publisher is likely to increase the support of the book, such as adding cities to a book tour.)

The fact is that with the sequel, there is an advantage in that I know so many new people now. Through my travels as well as through social media, I feel supported and loved in my new role as novelist. I know my readers better than I ever have before.

I also have the support of a network of novelists. Until I wrote my first novel, I didn’t really know any novelists, and now I know bunches of them. While I still maintain my ties to nonfiction book publishing and journalism, my world has expanded. I’ve been taken under the wing of many fine novelists, starting with the women writers at Southern Belle View Daily.

Thus, unlike with the first novel, I’m not taking this on all by myself. This time, I’ll have many friends by my side for the journey, come what may.

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My Creative Process: Explaining the Read-Straight-Through Marathon

I just completed a 48-hour writing and self-editing marathon in which I read my new manuscript from beginning to end with as few breaks as possible.

This requires some serious discipline. No television, no reading, no Internet. No ice cream, no meal preparation. Just snacks, water, and coffee. And, occasional stretching exercises and power naps.

My “read-straight-through” marathon is not about meeting a deadline. It’s actually part of my creative process. It has happened several times during the creation of each of my books – this time around, with the sequel to Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society, which is what I am working on now.

I say the marathon “happens” because I don’t plan it. I just know I need to do it.

Essentially it means that I have reached a point when I’m not entirely sure what I’ve written. Inconsistencies creep into a manuscript over time. The more interruptions – a doctor’s appointment, a phone call, a thunder storm – the more inconsistencies.

Only by reading the manuscript all the way through, in what is basically one sitting, do I see the flaws.

Oddly enough, it’s a fascinating part of the process. My mind is fully engaged, and I’m using my God-given talents to the best of my ability.

I know that other writers have different approaches. I don’t know why this works for me; it just does. There are many mysteries to the creative process, and that is what makes it so beautiful.

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My Salad Days: Confessions of a Lousy Waitress

All the kids coming home from college and starting summer jobs have brought back memories of the summer I managed to get what was considered a plum job: I was hired to be a “salad girl” (a type of waitressing job) at a famous, Colonial-era, New England inn.

As one might expect, the job involved bringing salads to tables. There were, however, many other tasks such as assembling baskets of fancy breads and delivering them to tables in my assigned area. Even at lunch there were multiple courses, a la Downton Abbey. Each course required its own place setting including ridiculously-heavy pewter plates that were for decorative purposes only. The worst part, however, was carrying tray after tray of ice water.

At 18, I was the youngest and newest salad girl. Naturally, this meant I got the worst tables. There were three locations where food was served: the dining room, a pub (only slightly less formal), and a courtyard that was a ten minute walk from the kitchen.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I grew to loathe that courtyard. It was not only far, far away from the kitchen but involved navigating various interior passageways, a long narrow porch with oversized hanging plants, and a dozen or so creaky wooden stairs that led, finally, to the outdoor seating area.

Arriving at the courtyard, however, was when the real challenge began. It meant traversing deep, crunchy, bluestone gravel. Now, I like gravel. It’s very attractive but I can assure you it is exhausting to walk on, hour after hour, despite the required sensible shoes we had to wear. Meanwhile, there was the obstacle course comprised of wrought iron tables, each with its own gigantic umbrella for shade, along with shrubbery and statuary placed in such a way that one wondered if it was intended to make the wait staff trip.
Accidents involving dropped trays meant immediate dismissal. I am proud to say that somehow I managed to escape that fate although I admit there were many close calls.

Still, I was almost constantly in trouble. On my first day I ate a piece of leftover bread, not having been told that this was forbidden. My brother had worked as a waiter at a steak restaurant and was encouraged to eat leftovers, so I had the idea (wrongly) that this was customary. Had I not been so young and inexperienced, I would have asked first.

And then there was the uniform: Prim black dresses with white starched aprons that were supposed to be tied in a perfect bow in the back. My bow either sagged or it was so stiff I looked like Sally Field in the T.V. show, “The Flying Nun.” The woman who owned the inn would spot-check the place several times a day, and on many occasions she would literally grab me, drag me aside, and re-tie my bow.

My worst offense, however, was removing a cat from the dining room. He was an enormous orange tomcat I’d seen hanging out on the front porch of the inn. No one told me that this was the owner’s cat. In fact, it turned out that the cat was the inn’s mascot and enjoyed free rein of the premises. I will never forget being yelled at for putting him outside. How was I to know?

My summer at the inn taught me many things. Chief among them is that I have a lifelong appreciation and respect for those who work in the restaurant business.

And, as my friends will tell you, I am invariably a very, very good tipper.

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