Who was your favorite teacher?
My favorite teacher, and the one who influenced me the most, was my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Koch at Lake Forest Park Elementary School. She was old enough to remember the Great Depression and her childhood in the late 1800’s, so she always added her own memories, which were much more interesting than the textbooks. Many years later, my memories of her inspired me to write historical fiction about ordinary people during extraordinary times.
What were your favorite books as a kid?
The first book I owned was To Think That I saw it on Mulberry Street, and the first chapter book I read and re-read, sometimes perched in the maple tree in our front yard, was My Father’s Dragon. Later, my favorites included Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, King of the Wind, the Anne of Green Gables series, The Princess and Curdy, Secret Garden, the Betsy-Tacy books, Ballet Shoes, stories about the Melendy family, and, of course, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
Are you like any of your characters?
I’m a little like Terpsichore. We both have two younger sisters, are appallingly klutzy, love books and libraries, imagined ourselves as Laura Ingalls, and like to collect recipes.
Where and how do you write?
In Everett, Washington, I have a battered roll-top desk where I start with pen or pencil and a dime store composition book. My desk is surrounded by a jumble of pictures of my family and stuffed picture book creatures, like Curious George, Madeline, and Max and the Wild Things. Then I swivel the chair to my computer station, with blank walls and no distractions as I take those handwritten doodles to a messy draft. My cat keeps me company, and tells me when it’s time for lunch.
We also live part-time on San Juan Island, where I write in a converted woodshed. It’s just 7’ X 8’, and there’s nothing in it but a flat door for a desk top and two windows looking out on the water, birds, an occasional deer, and old-growth fir trees.
What do you like most and least about writing?
I like research, and the aha! moments when I discover connections between events and characters and start piecing together another time and place.
I least like the moment when I look at a banker’s box full of notes and have to decide who’s going to tell the story, and what that character and his or her friends will do.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Six to thirteen years, from beginning research to finding the perfect editor and revising. Not all of that time is actual writing though. I get side-tracked on the research, and love to play pretend, so I buy whatever I can find from the period, such as a curling iron, high-topped l shoes, and issues of period magazines. If my character spins, I buy a spinning wheel and learn to spin. I sew a costume from the period. I wear reproduction Victorian-era shoes to find out where I first get blisters.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to be a writer?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Make friends with other people who write. Don’t give up.