I will be blogging more about some of these questions; as I do so, I’ll add links to those related posts with the answers below.
Q: How did you come up with the story for Odin’s Promise?
I’ve traveled to Norway twice with my friend. Her father was born in Ytre Arna and lived there until he immigrated to Wisconsin in his teens. We were hosted by her cousin’s family while there, seeing many old photos and meeting her father’s brothers and sisters and their families. On that first trip many years ago her aunt and uncle told us about their wedding day and the role it played in defiance of the occupying German army.
I was sure from the moment I heard that story that it should be in a children’s book. Over the years, that core story moved from the starring role in a picture book plan, through several variations (which will be told in blog posts), until Mari suddenly appeared in my mind.
That, of course, changed everything.
Q: Is the character of Mari based on you?
Mari is about as different from the girl I was at that age as anyone could possibly be. Of course, we grew up in different countries, at different times, and in different families. But a large part of the difference between us has to do with Mari’s sense of who she was in relation to the world and my own sense of who I was and what I expected to do in the world.
When it comes to her strongest emotions throughout the story, though, I felt very much in touch with my own childhood. Perhaps they were the source of Mari’s voice in my mind when she began to tell me her story.
Q: Did you have a dog like Odin?
Actually, I’ve never had an elkhound. I felt it was important to use that breed because of the national pride associated with Norway and its history. I’ve had dogs in my life many years, and one was named Odin. He was a golden retriever/spaniel mix, and lived until he was fifteen years old. Odin’s faithfulness and devotion in real life surely guided my thoughts in writing about Mari’s Odin. Since then I’ve had other dogs, all unique and special in their own ways, and each of whom contributed bits of personality to my fictional Odin. My dog in childhood was a small black spaniel mix with white bits on his paws and the tip of his tail, so he directly influenced my description of Odin in this story. I researched elkhounds to make sure that such coloring, as unusual as it is for the breed, was possible. I also checked to find personality and behavior patterns for elkhounds to be sure I was creating something believable for anyone who has owned elkhounds.
Q: Do you have a Norwegian background?
I’d like to say I do, but this is fact, not fiction. My father’s parents were both children of German immigrants, and my mother’s family is from Appalachian Kentucky. Her roots go back many generations, but Mom always said they were English/Irish with possibly a sliver of Native American, claimed by many who trace their roots to the early days in Appalachia. I hold my own heritage in high regard, but deeply admire Norwegian culture and history.
When traveling with my friend (see the first question above) I was welcomed by her family members, visited incredible locations, heard amazing stories spanning generations, met the most gracious and proud Norwegians everywhere I went, and fell in love with the country, its traditions, and its people. Since that first trip I’ve returned and had the pleasure of helping to host several of those generous and delightful relatives here in Wisconsin.
Q: Did you base Mari’s family on your own?
In most details, my family was quite different from Mari’s. But in the most important ways, it was the same. I’m a middle child of four: three girls and one boy. I grew up in more of a “pack” since we were all just a few years apart from each other. There were long periods when my widowed grandma lived with us, and dinner table conversation was our family routine, too. Most important of all, I never doubted that I was loved, that we all were, and that any hard times were survivable.
This question, and the one about Mari, got me to thinking, though. My mother was a “late life” child with a large age gap separating her from her older siblings. They played more of a parental role in her life, too. She often told stories of growing up feeling a bit lonely, spending time with her grandma and her dog. This question makes me realize that much of Mari’s situation and her worries remind me of stories my mother told me about her childhood, but that was never in my mind while I was writing.
Q: How did you research the Norwegian history involved in the story?
Since my earliest thoughts of a book envisioned it as a richly illustrated picture book, the only research I did was to confirm that May 17, 1941 was indeed on a Saturday. In time I realized there was far too much of a story for a picture book, so I scoured library books for more information about the history of Norway during the German occupation/invasion. That was before the internet was available, but several titles offered excellent background despite having older publication dates.
In recent years as I attempted other versions of Ytre Arna stories from that time in history my research took many turns, including reading other middle grade stories set in Norway during World War II. My journey through those attempts and exploring various resources will make future blog posts. I’ll say this much, I never allow Wikipedia citations in bibliographies, but I do suggest that students use it to find links to other sources. I took that advice myself and it led me to outstanding (and reliable) publications.
Q: To describe the imagery of the Norwegian landscape, did you have to travel to Norway?
I have long dreamed of traveling the world, but so far my overseas trips are limited to the times I joined my friend in Norway. I still hope to see many other places in the world, but would not trade my time in Norway for free tickets to ten other destinations.
I believe we can travel in our minds through reading, so I prepared for the first trip by viewing travel videos, trying (miserably) to learn the language, examining photos, and reading, reading, reading. I thought those things prepared me for what I’d see, hear, and learn there. Nothing even approached the breathtaking vistas I found throughout my visits. I’ll never stop raving about the beauties of the landscapes I saw, and I visited only a small part of Norway. I was most impressed by the fact that native Norwegians do not take any of their gorgeous homeland for granted. They often insisted that other parts of the country were even more beautiful, that the diversity of climates and geography would take a lifetime to explore, that visitors need more time to see even more. If Odin’s Promise makes readers want to see Norway for themselves, I can assure them they will not be disappointed.
Q: Why is “The Emperor’s New Clothes” an important part of the story?
There are two answers to that.
Fairy tales and folk tales have always been used as bedtime stories and to entertain, but they usually carry underlying messages as well. In this case the comfort of a story at that moment in Mari’s life helped me reveal the importance of her relationship with her grandma. I chose that tale because I knew she would later be in circumstances that required her to speak up, to take a stand, to step out of the shadows and be independent. Children did play that role, displaying symbols of resistance throughout the occupation.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is by Hans Christian Anderson, who is Danish, not Norwegian. Yet it offers a Scandinavian heritage instead of the link to Germany shared by many other folk and fairy tales. I intentionally chose to have Scarecrow’s family come from the part of Germany where the Grimm tales originated.
Q: What is your favorite scene or passage in Odin’s Promise?
That’s not an easy thing to say. I am never willing to name favorites when it comes to books, because I have so many favorites, each for different reasons, for different audiences, for different purposes. The same is true for various scenes in this story.
I worked very hard to make sure each and every part of the story played a role in helping readers follow and care about Mari’s journey to discovering her inner strength. As time passes I am likely to come back to this FAQ and answer it differently, especially as I have more opportunities to interact with readers and hear their reactions to various aspects of the book.
A good starting place for now would be to say that I really felt I was getting to know Mari and Grandma best in the cottage scene with the radio. They each learned more about the other there, too. Grandma’s confidence that Mari could handle the secret was a bond of trust beyond their previous feelings for each other.
Q: Why did you become a writer?
I’m not sure I became a writer as much as I discovered I was a writer. I was successful in every subject throughout school, even in the early years, but I still found it surprising when a teacher would select something I wrote for special praise. That was particularly true for fiction. I knew my writing was “good”, in that I could use it for assignments, communicate messages, write letters, etc. without having lots of red marks on returned papers. I just didn’t think of myself as a storyteller kind of writer until a series of teachers pointed out that… I was!
If that question really means “When did you think you could be a published writer?” there’s a really funny, kind of embarrassing story I’ll tell about that on the blog in future days.
I write because my mind tends to race, to flit from one thing to the next, to juggle many ideas at once. When I write, I can take an idea and focus, build my thoughts into something that makes better sense, reread what I’ve been saying, and discover what was hiding in my head as I hurry through my days and nights.
Q: What inspires you to write?
Everything! Really! My dad’s nickname when he was in the army during World War II was “Thousand Words Brehl”. Even in the midst of a world war his buddies knew that when he had a chance he’d talk your ear off. I’ve always been the same- no shortage of words in my mind or in my mouth. Everything I read, see, hear seems to remind me of something else, to make me wonder about something, to connect in some way that leads to another idea.
If I had to name one thing that inspires me to write, to write well, and to write widely it would be reading. I read as much as I possibly can, and admire so much of what other writers do.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
First, read. At a recent event focused on reading and writing, someone was asked, “Are you a reader, or a writer, or both?” We all agreed you can be a reader without writing, but you cannot be a writer without reading.
If you want to write, first read as much as possible of the types of things you want to write. Artists develop techniques by replicating the masterworks, not to claim them as their own, but to aspire to their skills and nuance. It’s like following the steps of an excellent dancer. Try to write “take-offs” on your favorites, write an alternate ending, tell a story you love from another character’s point of view.
Write often, write widely, and write what you enjoy. In time, you’ll develop your techniques, but you’ll also find your voice and have the confidence to explore your own path.
It’s always a good idea to find others who love to write and share your work, looking for encouragement but also for caring suggestions and concerns. They will lead you to improve.
Q: Who is your favorite author?
Hmmm . . . I’ll be sharing lots of favorite authors and titles in upcoming blog posts. I enjoy every kind of book for every age, fiction and non-fiction, but each of those categories has many favorites among them. And that changes over time, too.
In the category of historical fiction for young readers, I would have to include among favorites: Lois Lowry, Laurie Halse Anderson, Shana Corey, Christopher Paul Curtis, and too many others to list here.
Q: In your eyes, what makes a great story?
I’ve loved so many stories for so many different reasons, but they all have a few things in common.
First, the characters must be unforgettable (even when the names slip my mind, as they sometimes do). The characters need to matter to me, even when they may not be someone I’d choose for a friend. I need to be able to see why things matter to them and root for them to achieve their goals.
Next, the story needs to make sense, even if that means flying frogs and gossiping garbage cans. Within the world of the story, if that makes sense, I can deal with it. I’m easily distracted, even annoyed, by contradictions and inconsistencies. I’m not a fan of simplistic or predictable stories.
Last, but certainly not least, the writing must be competent (at a minimum) and the better it is the more I love the story. My favorite reading experience is when I feel myself rushing through the pages, desperate to complete the story, to find out how things turn out. Then, when the last word has been read and the last page turned, I head back to read it again, this time to savor the writing. I’ve noticed the turn of phrase, the word choice, the pacing, and the language during the first read, so I can’t wait to begin again, marking pages, making notes, appreciating how the writer made the story and the characters come to life for me.
Whether the story is a mystery or history, realistic or fantasy, intended for young readers or golden oldies or anyone in between, if it has memorable characters in a well-written and compelling plot, I’m a fan.