April 10, 2024
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The Inside Story on Writing Stories

We’ve all been faced with it at one time or another—at school, at work or even when writing a letter. It’s called “the terror of the blank page.” What should we write about? Even if we have a good idea, how do we then develop our thoughts so that they come alive to the reader?

On Wednesday evening July 24, at the Teaneck library, a rapt audience of children and adults got the chance to take a rare glimpse into the creative processes of three local children’s authors who discussed how they go about writing stories based on true events and real people. They spoke about the inspiration for their ideas, the research that they had to do to make their tales unique and then answered questions from the audience about their work.

A resident of Ridgewood, New Jersey, Ann Malaspina writes non-fiction. She told the listeners that she wanted her latest book, “Children on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President, to be different than all the other books about the suffragette that were available in her local library. So she went to work trying to discover everything she needed to know about her subject that would define Anthony’s personality and actions. Ms. Malaspina visited Anthony’s historic home, now a museum in Adams, Massachusetts and even made sure to walk on the same sidewalk that Anthony traversed daily. All the while she tried to imagine how her character’s wooden-heeled boots might have sounded clicking on that exact pavement in 1872. When she read about Anthony’s comment that, “every woman needs a purse,” the author featured Anthony’s alligator purse in the book’s illustrations, as well as the ever-present red scarf that made Anthony feel confident and even the eyeglasses that framed her bright blue eyes. Most importantly, the author confided to her audience the all-important advice that she had learned early on from her editor which now shapes all of her work. If you want your book to be interesting, you can’t merely detail a compilation of facts. You have to tell a story, a tale built around those facts, and the prize-winning author successfully does just that in all of her books for children and teens.

Elke Weber, a former resident of Teaneck who now lives in Israel, got the idea for one of her books, The Yankee at the Seder, from her father. He told her about a letter that a Union soldier, named Myer Levy, wrote to his family right after the Civil war ended. In it the soldier shared how he was still stationed in Virginia when he met a little boy eating matzoh outside of his home. The boy called to his parents, “Mom, there’s a

Yankee outside,” and this Yankee eventually joined his Confederate hosts for what had to be the most awkward Seder in history.

Ms. Weber detailed the difficult research that she had to pursue in order to find out details about her character, in this case, an ordinary person, not a prominent historical figure like Ms. Anthony. Weber had to search army records, birth and death certificates, as well as synagogue archives in Philadelphia where Levy lived. In this way, she discovered a great deal about her character. She also got to communicate with Levy’s great-granddaughter who even sent Weber a rare 1862 photograph of the soldier’s military sword which is featured in the book. Ms Weber acknowledged to her listeners that while finding out details about a character is difficult, it is also lots of fun. One can delve and search for a great deal of information but there is so much you still can’t possibly know. That’s where the author’s imagination comes into play and then “anything is possible.” That’s what makes reading all of Elke Weber’s books so enjoyable.

Anna Olswanger, a Fair Lawn resident, spoke to the audience about her fiction based on genealogical investigation. Initially in her career she published a family history magazine based on her research into her relatives’ histories. To do so, she searched ship manifests, passenger lists, personal wills; any information that could give her a picture of the important family values that typified her ancestors. Eventually, like Ms. Malaspina, Olswanger came to the conclusion that she wanted to develop these people into a story not merely list facts about them, and at the same time to pay tribute to them. So she used her explorations into the town, its geography, and a compilation of personal interviews to write Shlemiel Crooks about the attempted robbery of her great-grandfather’s liquor store in St. Louis in 1919. Although the illustrations in the book are based on real maps and pictures of the town, and the main premise of the story is a true one, Olswanger also mixes in a talking horse to add some fantasy and color to her tale.

At the conclusion of their talks, all three authors answered questions from the listeners about their works and then led two brief creative activities which demonstrated how we all use our imaginations to see things differently. Everyone came away from the library talk with the knowledge that we, too, can channel our curiosity to create interesting tales. The authors even gave us a parting gift, a souvenir pad and pencil so that we can begin our attempts at making stories of our very own.

Estelle Glass a Teaneck resident, is a retired educator, who is now happily writing her own essays.

By Estelle Glass

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