Tuesday, April 25, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Evan Gregory

Evan Gregory is a Senior Agent at the Ethan Ellenberg Literary agency. He began at the agency in 2008 as an Assistant and has managed subsidiary rights for the agency in addition to his duties as an agent and general office manager. Now he focuses on managing the careers of his own clients on behalf of the agency, and is currently seeking to grow his list. For more information see his listing at the Association of Authors Representatives or visit him on Twitter.

The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency was established in 1984 by Ethan Ellenberg who was a contracts manager for Berkley and associate contracts manager for Bantam. Since its inception the agency has represented several bestselling authors, career novelists, and professional writers. In addition to new and published authors, the agency also represents rights on behalf of publishers and literary estates. The agency is an independent full-service agency with robust sales in subsidiary rights and partnering agents all over the world. The agency is a member of the Association of Authors Representatives, an affiliate member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s of America, and an associate member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Romance Writers of America, and the Mystery Writers of America.

And now Evan Gregory faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Of all time? I couldn't possibly narrow it down to three. I love all the books. It's so hard to choose.

But if we're talking MG that I remember loving when I was a middle-grader, I would say A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, James and Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, My Teacher is an Alien by Bruce Coville (honorable mention to The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary). See, it's so hard to choose, I couldn't keep it to three.

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

It's so hard to play favorites

My favorites recently: Halt and Catch Fire, The Expanse, Stranger Things (Game of Thrones, of course).
Of all time: The Wire, The West Wing, Mad Men

Movies are like books, too hard to choose. But because this is about MG let's talk throwbacks: to go with my love of Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder > Johnny Depp), Labyrinth (huge Jim Henson fan, bigger David Bowie fan), The Princess Bride (inconceivable!)

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

Neil Gaiman has a quote about freelance workers where he says there are three things you need: to do good work, to be easy to get along with, and to make your deadlines. With the kicker that you really only need two out of three. My ideal client does all three.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

In Middle Grade, I'm always looking for something weird and delicious. I like wildly original concepts. Maybe something spooky. Maybe something movingly sad. I want characters that have a lot of personality and pathos, courage and also doubts. I'm also looking for diverse stories from diverse authors. I welcome more POC and LGBTQ authors and characters.  I want writing that is crisp, plain, but that has impact. I tend towards the fantastical just because I like the stakes to be high, but I also like contemporary MG that has something urgent to say.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing about being an agent is advocating for good art, and the needs of the artists that make it. I love getting a good deal for a client, and seeing them succeed.

My least favorite thing is rejection, both giving and receiving it. I would love to champion everything, and I would love for everyone to agree with me on the projects I do champion, but alas the world works differently than that.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Always be working on that next thing, and always believe that the next project will be better than the last, or don't bother. I get queries all the time from authors who have been polishing the same manuscript for a decade, or submitting it forever, and working on nothing else. I don't know why one would torture oneself that way.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I'd like to have tea (maybe butter beer) with J.K. Rowling. She has a keen wit, and I bet she has really cool stories about publishing and interesting insights about success. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

7 Questions For: Author Bruce Coville

Bruce Coville was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1950. His family lived in farm territory, about twenty miles north of Syracuse. Bruce grew up around the corner from his grandparents' dairy farm, where he spent a great deal of time as a child, dodging cows and chores to the best of his ability. As a young reader he loved Mary Poppins and Dr. Dolittle, and still has fond memories of rising ahead of the rest of his family so he could huddle in a chair and read THE VOYAGES OF DR. DOLITTLE. He also read lots of things that people consider junk (Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and zillions of comic books). His only real regret is the time he spent watching television, when he could have been reading instead. (A mind is a terrible thing to waste!)

His first book, THE FOOLISH GIANT, was published in 1978. It was illustrated by his wife, Katherine, whom he had married in 1969. This was followed in 1979 by SARAH'S UNICORN, also illustrated by Katherine. After a long period of working separately, the Covilles began collaborating again with SPACE BRAT and GOBLINS IN THE CASTLE, both published in 1992.

Before getting published Bruce earned his living as a toymaker, a gravedigger, a cookware salesman, an assembly line worker, and finally as an elementary school teacher (second and fourth grades). He left teaching in 1981 to devote himself to becoming a full time writer - though it took another five years to achieve that goal!)

Bruce has published over 100 books, which have appeared in over a dozen countries around the world and sold more than sixteen million copies. Among his most popular titles are MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN, INTO THE LAND OF THE UNICORNS, and THE MONSTER'S RING. In 2001 he founded Full Cast Audio, an audiobook company dedicated to creating unabridged, full cast recordings of the best in children's and young adult literature.

Click here to read my review of My Teacher is an Alien.

And now Bruce Coville faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Well, at least you allowed me three! This is better than those who want to know the absolute favorite, which changes with the day and my mood.

Okay, here we go:

1. TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt, which I think is the greatest children's book of the second half of the 20th century. I was able to share it with a group of gifted fourth graders back when I was teaching, and their insights and appreciation for the text filled me with joy. It is simply a brilliant book.

2. BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens. He is my favorite writer since I became a mature reader, and this is quite simply the most monumental novel I have ever read.

3. THE HIGH KING by Lloyd Alexander. I love the "Chronicles of Prydain" and this book, the glorious culmination, reduces me to tears every time I reread it. Lloyd's gift for combining humor with drama, adventure, and high emotion has been a model for me for my entire career.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

I don't spend nearly as much time writing as I should, or even as much as I want to. My goal is three hours of solid writing per day, but rarely happens anymore. It's partly my own distractibility, and partly how many distractions surround me!

On the plus side, when I am coming in for a landing toward the end of a book, I can sometimes work for hours and hours.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

The basic one: writing and sending stuff out.

For eight years.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

Oh, both, definitely. You have to have some native talent, and an innate desire to do this thing. But then you have to spend time learning your craft. I am a demon on craft, and think it is a writer's duty to not only master craft, but to spend his or her entire career increasing that mastery.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is something that happens toward the end of a book. The earlier part is usually a struggle as I'm trying to shape the story, understand the elements, arrange the pieces. But once everything is in place the final part of the story or book sometimes comes pouring out, often surprising me with stuff that makes perfect sense but that I hadn't realized until that moment. I love it when that happens!

My least favorite thing is a daily occurence – the struggle to sit down and start! It is so easy to put off doing the very thing I love most. It is a strange aspect of how the brain, or at least my brain, works!

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Do not give up. I went to college with people who probably better writers than I was. But they will not be published because they gave up. The three most important aspects in forging a writing career are talent, luck, and bone-headed obstinance.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Though there are dozens of contenders, I've had the good luck to dine with many of my contemporaries.  That leaves the dear departed, and among them it is, hands down, William Shakespeare. For one thing, if we set aside all differences of language, I think it would be a marvelously bawdy encounter. I have written and spoken often about the importance of earthy humor  (fart jokes!), and the great bard was clearly in line with this. We could discuss the adaptations of his work that I have done (seven in all) and I would brace myself for either approval or scorn, hoping for the former. Whatever he thought of how I had toiled to bring his work to young people, I would have had the joy of sitting with one of the greatest scriveners of all time, even if he chose to blow a raspberry at my own efforts. But I think that even if he did, we would have a marvelously merry time exchanging jokes and opinions. I would never want it to end!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book of the Week: MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN by Bruce Coville

First Paragraph(s): “Hey, Geekoid!” yelled Duncan Dougal as he snatched Peter Thompson’s book out of his hand. “Why do you read so much? Don’t you know how to watch TV?”
Poor Peter. I could see that he wanted to grab the book back from Duncan. But I also knew that if he tried, Duncan would cream him. 
Sometimes I wonder if Duncan’s mother dropped him on his head when he was a baby. I mean, something must have made him decide to spend his life making other people miserable. Otherwise why would he spend so much of his time picking on a kid like Peter Thompson? Peter never bothers anyone. Heck, the only thing he really wants is to be left alone so he can read whatever book he has his nose stuck in at the moment. 
That doesn’t seem like too much to ask to me. But Duncan takes Peter’s reading as a personal insult.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. I'm going to call this a book of the week review even though I haven't reviewed a book here since almost exactly one year ago:) Truthfully, I've been turning down requests for book reviews because typically guest posts written by writers more talented than yours truly have drawn greater traffic, with the notable exception of reviews of classic books. The interwebs are drawn to this review of Bunnicula for some reason, and this review of The Indian in the Cupboard gets more traffic than this way more interesting interview with its author. I don't get it and I don't pretend to, but if Esteemed Reader's happy, I'm happy.

As an experiment, we're going to try a few "book of the week" reviews in the coming weeks. I never want to become complacent. If enough Esteemed Readers show me they like these reviews, I'm happy to write more of them. If y'all prefer the guest posts, that works too, and we'll have some more interviews with literary agents and other publishing professionals in the near future. Most exciting of all, author Bruce Coville will be here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions for writers. It's going to be a great week!

My Teacher is an Alien is an absolute classic of middle grade fiction and any ninjas wishing to write middle grade science fiction and/or horror should absolutely give it its due consideration. This gem was published in the eighties, which is why I have a cherished childhood memory of having to wait for agonizing weeks for the library's copy to be made available to me. Every student in my class was on the waiting list to check it out and so I saw that super scary cover staring back at me from multiple desks before I got my turn.

It's a mystery to me why some books become classics (why do people of sound mind read James Joyce when a gun isn't pressed against their head!?!), but there's no mystery here. My Teacher is an Alien is a killer concept well executed, which seems simple enough, but if it were every writer would be doing it every book:) The title beautifully lays out the conflict that's to be the subject of the story and it's exciting stuff. Between the title and one of the finest covers in all of middle grade history, I was invested in the book as a child before the first page and these many years later, children are still being intrigued.

More than a killer concept, Coville's is a great story well told, which is why it remains popular when so many other books with concepts and covers almost as good have gone the way of cassette tapes. Because the characters are well-defined and the concept is universal (who hasn't suspected at least one of their teachers of being an alien?), this story hardly seems to have aged and I enjoyed it as an adult as much as I once did as a child, even if I found myself muttering "or watch it on YouTube" here:

We were doing the greatest march of all time, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa. (If you don’t know it, you should go to your library and get a record of it so you can listen to it. It’s great.)

And okay, I did wonder how it might change things if any of the students in Mr. Smith's class had a smart phone to film him transitioning to the alien Broxholm (such a wonderful name) to live stream to social media. Of course, UFO videos are everywhere online and folks who believe there's something to them like your beloved ninja are still thought to be kooks (it's fake news as our 100% trustworthy government would tell us if they knew of flying saucers!), so maybe a smart phone wouldn't make much difference.

My Teacher is an Alien is a short book that can be knocked out in a couple bus rides, or one long one, which has no doubt also contributed to its longevity. Because it's short and funny, it appears to have been written effortlessly, as the best fiction so often does, but look again. You long-term Esteemed Readers know I don't really review books so much as dissect them a bit, so let's start with that opening. Look up at the first paragraph at the top of this review once again.

Right away, Coville establishes the tone of his story and assures the reader that this book is going to concern itself with 6th graders and their conflicts. Peter Thompson has our sympathies and Duncan Dougal does not (or do you root for bullies, Esteemed Reader?). More over, the reason Peter is being bullied is because he likes to read, which will probably appeal to Coville's reader, who we know is reading at least one book:)

I'll never forget a critique session I participated in with an author who shall remain nameless who'd written a story about a protagonist who hated books. When the character didn't later reverse this position (it wasn't central to the plot), I and my other critique partners savaged the author and our number one critique was that although a main character in a book doesn't have to like to read, it's probably not a bad idea if she does. Your book has to appeal to readers and people who like books, so why not assure them that it's good that they're reading (link to your back catalog!). Bruce Coville knows what side his bread is buttered on:

I slid down the wall and sat beside him. He acted as if he didn’t notice me. Or maybe he really didn’t. He was one of those kids who could get so wrapped up in a book it would take a bomb to break his attention. I hated to interrupt him. Peter always seemed a little unhappy to me, like he understood that he just didn’t fit in with the rest of us. The only thing I knew that made him happy was reading science fiction. He always had a book hidden behind his school book. The neat thing was, it didn’t make any difference, because he was so bright that whenever the teacher asked him a question, he always knew the answer. I could never figure out why they wouldn’t just leave him alone and let him read. But that’s the way school is, I guess.

What really makes this opening work better than other middle grade books that begin with a bully menacing a likable character (including Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees) is that the point of this exchange is not primarily to introduce Peter or Duncan, though it does accomplish this, but to characterize our main protagonist, who is neither boy, but a particularly tough girl named Susan Simmons:

Peter had absolutely no idea how to deal with a creep like Duncan. Actually, neither did I. If I did, I would have stopped him. But the one time I had tried to come between Duncan and Peter, I ended up with a black eye myself.
Duncan claimed it was an accident, of course. “Susan just jumped right in front of my fist,” he said as if I was the one who had done something wrong. To tell you the truth, I think Duncan punched me on purpose. Most guys wouldn’t hit a girl. But Duncan doesn’t mind. It was his way of warning me to keep my nose out of his business.
As I watched Duncan squinting down at Peter, it occurred to me that sixth grade can be a dangerous place if you don’t watch out.

Our characters established, we move right along at breakneck speed because something is amiss at Kennituck Falls Elementary. I don't want to spoil it for you, but one of the teachers may be... wait for it... an alien! The reader knows something is up with the strange Mr. Smith, who does not care one bit for music or laughter or fun. He bans "radios and tape players" and presumably 8-tracks from the playground:) Coville gives us plenty of evidence that the new teacher who's replaced Ms. Schwartz is other worldly: 

Later, I remembered that he was looking straight at the sun. But right then I was too worried about the note to pay attention to the fact that what he was doing should have burned out his eyeballs.

But Coville doesn't drag things out. There's some drama involving a passed note that escalates until Susan is given a plausible reason to follow Mr. Smith home, where she discovers this in chapter four:

When I finally got up the nerve to sneak a look around the bottom edge of the door, I saw Mr. Smith sitting at a little makeup table, looking in a mirror. Stacy was right. The man really was handsome. He had a long, lean face with a square jaw, a straight nose, and cheekbones to die for. Only it was a fake. As I watched, Mr. Smith pressed his fingers against the bottom of his eyes. Suddenly he ran his fingertips to the sides of his head, grabbed his ears, and started peeling off his face!

Again, surprise, my teacher, as it turns out, is an alien (gasps and clutches pearls). Even if I inserted more passages from the text and walked you through the full events of each of the first four chapters, I wouldn't be telling you much that you don't already know from the title, the cover, and the back blurb. Coville can't not tell this part of the story, the way Michael Chrichton dutifully pretends there's a mystery as to what sort of animals are at Jurassic Park prior to the arrival of the heroes on Isla Nublar. Corville's establishing of the premise is absolutely exciting and fun, but there are 21 chapters here and the first four alone do not a story make.

What matters most is that by the time we get to the end of chapter four, we care about Susan Simmons and Peter Thompson and that we've bought into their situation. The story here is not that Mr. Smith is an alien, it's what Susan and later (despite what the cover would have you believe) Peter are going to do once they discover their teacher is an alien. Who can they tell? Who would believe them? And if no one believes them, who will stop Broxholm if they don't stop him? Does he need to be stopped?

I believe the rule of any great story is that a writer must begin with a great premise and build outward. Corville's prose is tight and fun and I laughed a lot along the way, especially toward the end as I'd forgotten how our heroes foil... nope, I best not say too much and spoil the story for the uninitiated.

But do take notice that Coville eschews most description save for what readers need to follow the story. There are no long, overly-written descriptions of fields of symbolically purple flowers here because Coville keeps things moving. And every chapters ends with either a cliffhanger or a question as to what will happen next, making it impossible for young readers to put down the book in favor of their intertelevision console controller:). Here's one of my favorite chapter endings that would be at home in a Stephen King novel:

“Oh, all right,” said Peter. He opened the door and started up the stairway. When he got about halfway up the stairs his head passed the level of the attic floor. I was walking so close that I bumped into him when he stopped. 
“What is it?” I whispered. When he didn’t answer me, I pushed my way up beside him and cried out in horror.

And so, once again, Esteemed Reader, upon revisiting an old favorite novel, I discover that the secret to creating a classic is a good story well told. Bruce Coville makes it look easy, but it's far from it. Rereading My Teacher is an Alien was like visiting with a childhood friend. If you've never read it, pick it up this minute, and if you haven't read it in the last five years, it's probably time for a refresher. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from My Teacher is an Alien:

I sank back into my seat. Sixth grade was going bad faster than a dead fish on a hot day.

Of course, once we were inside, I had to go to the nurse’s office—even though I actually felt perfectly fine. Mrs. Glacka told me to lie down. I wasn’t surprised. That was her basic cure for everything.

I was as nervous as a marshmallow at a bonfire.

“An alien!” said Peter, his voice filled with awe. “Mr. Smith is an alien! We’re not alone!” 
“What are you talking about?” I hissed. 
“Intelligent aliens. Mankind is not alone in the universe.” 
“Well, I’m feeling pretty alone right now,” I said. “Are you going to help me or not?”

After supper I slipped out of bed and went to see my father. He was sitting in his den, building a model of the Empire State Building out of toothpicks. That’s his hobby—making famous buildings with toothpicks. If you ask me, it’s pretty weird. But it keeps him happy, which is more than I can say for most adults I know. So I guess I shouldn’t complain.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Post: "Why I Write About Goblins" by Andrea Kaczmarek

Why do I write Middle Grade? 

Middle grade is the starting point to get kids really keen on books. Of course, the earlier the better with read aloud stories and the old favorites, but middle grade has a special attraction to get kids hooked. My grandson is hooked on the Wimpy Kid series and my granddaughter is hooked on Harry Potter – say no more. My first middle grade was about Worry Dolls, basically a story for girls and from the aspect of school bullies – and this new book is for boys!

Why Goblins? 

I once read that witches, wizards, vampires and fairies are over represented in kids’ books. Then I thought – well, goblins could be a bit different. I started out with the idea of writing about a nice friendly goblin – but sadly, Hob Gob changed things, and my little hero turned into a dirty, smelly, greedy little villain. The twins Jerry and Jacob find him on their ‘big adventure’ and can’t wait to get rid of the little squirt. That’s what happens when a story writes itself! And stories always write themselves, no matter what good intentions you have at the start.

Why Ravenswood? 

Kitty Honeycutt seems like a hard-working publisher who wants to make a success of things. I hope it works out, don’t we all. Wish us both luck. The websites are very detailed and the MG and children’s books are part of Sunquills. Also, they work together with Scholastic, which I consider good. Watch this space and I’ll keep you posted about Ravenswood.

About me? 

Well, I have been writing in my free time for years, but now I have retired from teaching I can spend more time writing and re-writing. A lot of my ideas come from my school experiences, yes, I kept a school diary for a few years – and there are many many stories waiting to be told. But for quite a few years I was also a Town Councilor for the Green Party. My passions were /are education, integration and the handicapped. Language alone isn’t the key to successful integration of our new immigrants – involvement and education are just as important. I have founded a local charity – The World of Reading – and we bring books and stories to kids in our town.

And here is a taste of ‘There’s a Stinky Goblin in the Shed’ – lovely pen drawings by Eva Kuenzel:


Born in Wales. Teacher training in Weymouth - married with two grown up children - and now grandmother to three amazing and clever kids.

I was a Town Councillor for many years in Hamm with a great interest in integration and education. Today I still work on the Committee for Special Needs and I am Chair of the World of Reading - Lese Welt Hamm - bringing books and stories to children!

I still organise art and English projects at my old school - great fun working with children from many different backgrounds.

Children who enjoy stories and reading have a good start in life!

Jerry and Jacob clean out Gran’s old garden shed to make a den, but on their first late-night walk in the woods behind it, they come across a very strange, grubby little person and their problems begin. A small pile of rags that can talk! The boys want to run away fast, but they take pity on the strange creature. They promise to try and get it back to its own world – GoblinLand.

Hiding a goblin in their den is a full time job. But in the end they find out that Hob had upset an elf, could that be the clue they need? But if the twins think that helping out their grubby goblin friend is the end of the story – they are very very wrong! Once you have let one goblin into your life…..the goblin door has opened!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

GUEST POST: "Researching to build worlds and add realism to fantasy" by C.A. Hartley

The inspiration for my middle-grade fantasy series, "The Plight of the Plexus," came ten years ago when I took a break from my corporate career to spend time with my two-year-old son. During his naps, I often spent time reading about ancient history, art, and physics (all hobbies from my college days).

I had just finished reading a physics article on String Theory and turned to Renaissance painters. While studying Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Nederlandse Spreekwoorden (Netherlandish Proverbs), my normal train of thought— what were all these crazy people doing?— shifted into a different one: What if I climbed inside the painting and interviewed them? And, once I struck up a conversation, what if I became part of their upside-down world? How would I escape? 

With String Theory and parallel dimensions still floating in my mind, I envisioned many painted worlds not controlled by artists, but beings living in the higher dimensions. That day, String Theory became the construct for the Plexus (my liminal world that binds and separates all parallel dimensions) and Bruegel’s painting a mechanism to move in time. I immediately wrote two chapters of my first novel in the series: “The Plight of the Plexus” set in the higher dimensions; and “Escaping the Up-side-down World” set in Netherlandish Proverbs.

Before re-entering the workforce, I read everything I could find about Bruegel and String Theory, outlined the series, and completed a rough draft of the first book (then titled: Grandmother Isadora’s Gemstone Tablets). Over the next several years, the story grew in my mind and, as William Faulkner said, “If a story is in you, it has to come out.” I took another break from work, this time to write The Primal Key, the first book in the series.

I allowed myself a year to write the manuscript, and research quickly took on a new role. I dusted off my first draft, written years earlier. Much of the story was purely from my imagination and it lacked depth and realism. Less than five percent of that original draft survived in the final manuscript. 

Research brought my story back to life. I had set a number of scenes in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Camera in hand, I took a field trip to my favorite art museum to get the details “right.” Unlike many museum-goers who mostly admired the great works in The Met’s collection, I spent hours figuring out how my protagonists (thirteen-year-old Anne and Alex Clarke) would escape the museum when all the normal exits were sealed. I also selected the works of art to feature in the book.

The Met scenes underway, I turned my attention to Grandmother Isadora’s estate. Picking the right setting took several weeks of research and a number of fieldtrips. I wanted a secluded environment that was also near a major metropolitan area. My short list included: The Greenbrier State Forest (WV); Catskills Park in New York's Forest Preserve; Wharton State Forest (NJ); and Jenny Jump State Forest in New Jersey.

My son accompanied me on my research trip to Jenny Jump State Forest and we both agreed that, although beautiful, the creepy factor was high, especially late on an autumn afternoon— a perfect atmosphere for Grandmother Isadora. The nearby sod farm between Ghost Lake and Bear Swamp seemed just the right size for the estate. A cave on the northern edge of Ghost Lake became the setting for Alex’s vision quest. Even some of the local folklore about Shades of Death Road, which skirts the southern edge of the forest, made it into the book. Although Jenny Jump (herself) is not featured in Book 1, look for her later in the series.

Grandmother Isadora’s five ancient gemstone tablets also needed an infusion of reality. I’ve been interested in ancient civilizations since my family traveled to Egypt when I was eight, so ancient Egypt was definitely on the list. For the other four tablets, I selected the Indus Valley Civilization (South Asia), the Greek Bronze Age (Greece), the Zhou Dynasty (China), and the Mesoamerican Epi-Olmec culture (Central America).

I had studied these histories before, but winding facts about these cultures into a work of fiction required me to dig deeper. Trips to the library to read history texts, discussions with experts, and some internet research turned up volumes of material. To structure and organize the vast amount of data I collected, I wrote mini-research papers laced with scanned pictures.

Satisfied I had researched enough, I put aside the mound of data—because when middle-grade readers pick up a fantasy novel, they expect to be transported into an exciting new world filled with wonder and adventure, not a textbook wrapped inside a fictional plot. I only added details from my research if they helped develop character or enhanced my fantasy world.

Embroiled in writing book two, The Amalgamator’s Trials, I look forward to that inevitable time when the story grinds to a halt and research saves me. For me, learning and discovery staves off writer’s block. 

Cathy (C.A. Hartley) is the author of the middle-grade series “Plight of the Plexus,” the first of which, The Primal Key, was released in August 2016. She loves art museums of all types (The Metropolitan Museum of Art is her favorite). She practices Kung Fu and Qigong, but keeping up with her middle-school son is what really keeps her young in body and in spirit. Cathy lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and Styx, her labradoodle. 

Visit her at www.cahartley.com.

Alex Clarke trains for one thing— finding the broken bits of Grandmother's Carnelian Tablet. The relic, if mended, could reveal the location of the Primal Key— the key to unlocking parallel dimensions. His family duty and his path are preordained, foretold centuries ago until . . .

Anne Clarke's curiosity gets the best of her. She opens a storage box, the one thing Mom insists she leave alone, and prematurely unleashes suppressed talents— dangerous skills that can't be curbed once released. Worse, she accidentally leads Seth Barthony, Grandmother's murderous adversary, to the family's safe house. Seth's agents destroy their home and abduct Mom. As ransom, Seth insists Grandmother hand over the Primal Key.  

As Alex scrambles to uncover clues to the Key's last resting place, Anne learns her new talents could help rescue Mom. But Anne's shaky and untested skills could, if forced, kill her and those she loves.