At Folly Quarter Middle, an author explains how young-adult historical fiction is created

Writer provides pupils with the inside story

October 29, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

For an hour, visiting author Carolyn Reeder explained how she had crafted her latest work of young-adult historical fiction, The Secret Project Notebook.

As seventh-graders at Folly Quarter Middle School listened attentively, she explained how she moved from original idea to finished product -- a book centering on the children of scientists working on the Manhattan Project.

Her discussion was both a history lesson and a discussion of the yearlong process of creating her book.

Using a slide show and peppering her talk with plenty of anecdotes, she told how she did her research and explained about oral histories. She showed photographs of the school where the children were taught and the apartments where the scientists lived.

She discussed the need to revise again and again, and she explained to the pupils why she changed her book from a third-person narrative to the first person.

Throughout the talk, Reeder never quite explained what the Manhattan Project was, telling pupils that it was a top-secret mission during World War II. Telling more, she said, would ruin the surprise for most readers of the book.

After she finished her talk and answered a few questions, Reeder's presentation was over. But one pupil, James Bender, 11, approached. "In your book, does Albert Einstein appear anywhere?" he asked.

James knew that Einstein was behind some of the science that had made the Manhattan Project possible. Reeder explained that Einstein, though not in the book, had signed a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, written by other scientists, about the importance of the project.

James said he liked history and had learned from Reeder's talk. "I didn't know that a lot of the kids of the scientists actually went to school where the secret project was taking place," he said.

He said he plans to write his own historical fiction.

Reeder, who lives in Glen Echo, has published eight works of young-adult historical fiction, including Maryland-based Captain Kate, which is centered on a stepbrother and stepsister who take a boat on the C&O Canal during the Civil War.

Beverly Barnes, the reading team leader at Folly Quarter in Ellicott City, said she has known Reeder for many years. "When the PTA asked me to bring in an author for the book fair, she came to mind," Barnes said. Reeder gave two presentations, then stayed on for pizza with eight pupils from all grades.

During her talk to the seventh-graders, Reeder, a former teacher, explained the importance of research. She said she studied photographs of the time and place. "Historic photos are very important to me," she said. "I need the pictures in my head."

She also told of finding a book written by the wives of the scientists, which gave details such as the lack of soundproofing in the apartments. If people wanted to talk without being heard by their neighbors, they would turn up the music, she said.

She described her revision process, explaining why she changed one character's name and showing three different versions of her first sentence.

Anachronisms had to be excised. She wanted to use the term "good cop, bad cop," but since she couldn't determine when the phrase came into use, she left it out.

Reading through her manuscript, she discovered that she often described her main character's heart as pounding. She needed to get rid of the repetition. "I had his stomach tighten up, I had his mouth go dry," she said. But in one case, she kept the pounding heart, turning it into a simile: "My heart's beating so fast it's like one of those jackhammers workmen use to rip up the pavement."

Even after the manuscript was finished, the work wasn't done, she said. She then made changes suggested by her editor.

Creating a cover can be complicated, too, she said. Reeder showed several versions of her cover, explaining why earlier renditions weren't right.

After the presentation, Trevor Putman, 12, said he was surprised at how much work goes into writing a book, "how many times you had to redo the text." But he said Reeder's presentation was informative. "I learned a lot about how to write a book," he said.

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