Friday, February 29, 2008


"If you are lost in the woods, in the woods, I will find you."

--from That's What Friends Do by Kathryn Cave, illustrations by Nick Maland

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Tarenne was Piper Reed in the book parade!

Thanks for the smile, Tarenne! You made my week.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Twenty-three years ago, this month, I married my husband. He owned a home, but not a washer and dryer. Jerry thought his mother enjoyed doing his laundry. When we became engaged, she said, "Thank goodness, I'm so tired of doing Jerry's shirts!"

A month before we wed, I bought a washer and dryer and joked that it was my dowry.

Last week the washer broke. As he does with every purchase, Jerry researched washers to exhaustion, consulting Consumer Reports at night and questioning appliance salesmen on his lunch break. Where was I during this process? Writing.(Blissfully, I might add.)

Jerry decided to forgo all the bells and whistles after learning computer boards are very expensive when they break. However, he thought we should invest in a new dryer, too. "That way they'll match."

Since the laundry room is the only room that we haven't redone extensively, I could care less if we had an attractive washer and dryer. Our laundry room is no showplace. I actually discovered my vinyl flooring on the Home and Garden channel. It was a before shot. Frankly I spend as little time as possible in that room. I'd rather be writing.

Last night Jerry dragged me to the store to see the models he thought we should get. The salesman ran down all the pros--bleach and water softener dispensers, hot-cold wash options, etc.

I said, "Sounds great. Lets get them."

Apparently in February new models come in and old models are marked down. We couldn't believe our luck. Who would have thought our washing machine would go ker-plunk in the right month?

Today two men delivered the washing machine and dryer. I wondered how long that was going to take. Didn't they know I had a manuscript to work on? This would have been a day of rejoicing for my mom or grandmas. They would have been so happy when those brand new appliances were hooked up. They would have thrown in a load before the delivery truck pulled out of the driveway. They would have marveled at the heat sensor in the dryer.

After the men checked the vent in the wall, one said, "You might tell your husband to take a look at the vent from the roof. I think a bird might have built a nest up there."


"Yeah, there are some cracked eggs in the vent down here. Sometimes birds build nests up in the vent because it's nice and warm."

That was fascinating.

The men left. And I did, too, heading to the coffee shop with a new story weaving in my mind. It hasn't come together yet, something about a mother bird building a nest in an unlikely place. That's about all I know except that it doesn't have a bit to do with laundry.

Monday, February 25, 2008


When SCBWI Houston asked me to speak at their conference, I didn't know that my daughter would get a part in a play that same weekend. But the lovely coincidence is that her college is also in the Houston area. So Jerry and I had the good fortune of seeing The Skin of Our Teeth two times. Everyone in the cast at Sam Houston University did a fabulous job with Thornton Wilder's play, but we were especially impressed with the fortune teller gypsy who shared our last name. Bravo, Shannon Holt!

Thank you, SCBWI Houston, for inviting me to be a part of your well-organized and inspiring conference. I speak at a lot of events, but I seldom get to hear other presenters. That's one reason why Saturday was so special. I learned a lot. Illustrator Don Tate reminded me of the importance of being professional. His work ethic is admirable. Agent Jennifer Jaeger shared her knowledge about the industry and how she works with clients to help them have the best manuscript before submitting to an editor. That's dedication!

Editor Molly O'Neill compared a writer's approach to craft to that of a tourist or a traveller. Another editor Abigail Samoun took us on a journey of a book to publication.

Sarah Cloots closed out the day by giving insights to her job as an editor and reminding us of the importance of writing for young people. She quoted the legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom. When offered the opportunity to "step up" to editing adult books, Nordstrom said, "I couldn't possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults. And thank you very much, but I have to get back to my desk to publish some more good books for bad children."

Whenever I speak I give insights into my writing process, but my main goal is to inspire others to reach for their dreams. So I was delighted when Aileen Kirkham shared the following jingle that she'd based on my presentation:

Writing(sing to the tune of Rawhide)

Writing, writing, writing words that are inviting
For readers who will see or hear
Your characters and setting
A plot NOT worth forgetting
Writers make the readers want to care
Writing, writing, writing. Wriiiiite ON!

During my presentation I showed a picture of my grandmother's house and talked about how this home shows up in many of my books. It's a simple wood frame structure with a tin roof, but that home provides an emotional well for me. It is only natural that it would make repeat appearances in my stories.

After my talk several people came up to share how Nanny's home reminded them of someones home they cared deeply about. For Vicki Sansum it was her grandmother's. For Aileen Kirkham it was her Aunt Villa's. I didn't ask if they planned to tap into their emotional wells. Maybe they already have.

We all have those special places that pull at us, stir our insides, and evoke memories. Those places serve as a writer's emotional landscape. They help fiction ring with truth.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


This month's give-away is a signed hardback copy of MISTER AND ME. Two winners will be chosen. To qualify for the drawing: email your name and mailing address(snail mail)to:

The deadline is this Sunday, February 24, 2008. 4:00 PM Central time. If you are a previous month's winner, you may still enter.

Good luck!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Most of my books are inspired by a character, but Mister and Me was inspired by the setting. Fourteen years ago my dad took me to see Longleaf. It was a sawmill town located outside of Forest Hill, Louisiana.

Today you can walk freely around there because the town has been preserved as a historical site. But that day my dad and I ignored the "No Trespassing" signs and wandered through the property. It was as if someone had turned off a switch. The sawmill had closed some thirty years before, but lumber and tools remained untouched in the mill. Cups and saucers were stacked on the counter in the company store as if waiting for coffee and old men's stories.

A year later I was writing my own stories. After finishing my first book, I wanted to return to Longleaf to write an adult epic. I did return, and when I arrived home there was a story burning inside me. But it was not an epic for adults. It was a simple story about a child whose widowed mother starts dating a logger. Once again, I learned that the journey you set out for is not always the destination you end up at. And thank goodness for that.

(pictures above: Inside the sawmill and a front view of the company store)

Train used to haul lumber and the superintendent's home.

This church sits outside the sawmill town, but it inspired the church I used in Mister and Me. Imagine my delight when I received a copy of the German version that's cover bore a remarkable resemblance to the inspiration.


Monday, February 18, 2008


Wednesday I returned to Louisiana. I'd been invited to speak at the Louisiana Teen Library Association in Alexandria. Since Alex(as we call it) is 18 miles from Forest Hill, I flew in a day early to visit with family.

The next afternoon my grandfather and I settled on a bench, overlooking his bulb garden, and continued our interview. Pa told me about his father's encounter with a pick-pocketing gypsy and pointed out trees that his father had given him. Until that afternoon, I'd never known the magnificent magnolia, planted outside the kitchen window, came from my great-grandfather. Some of Pa's camellias were from him also.

That evening Mom, Pa, and I joined cousins O.D. and Elizabeth Chamberlain and friends John and Jody Halbert at Carl's Catfish Kitchen. Carl fixes the best catfish in that neck of the woods. And there aren't many restaurants where pickled green tomatos are served on the salad bar.

O.D. took me on a tour of his nursery Friday morning. From his golfcart, I learned about the stages his beautiful plants go through before they're loaded on a truck and eventually planted in someone's yard.

At noon we joined John and Jody at Lea's Lunchroom in Lecompte. Lea's is famous for their pies, but my goodness those were the best-knee-slappin' turnips I've ever eaten in my life. And the owner, Ms. Johnson, told me the secret. "I cooked them different today. Mrs. Young told me she used brown sugar in hers so I thought I'd give it a try." She'd gotten the turnips from the Youngs and one of the prize beauties was on display by the exit.

The young people of the Louisiana Teen Library Association impressed me. Their warmth for others and enthusiasm for books was awesome. I can't wait to find out where these young people are ten years from now. The Vice President, Kristin Sanchez, was a pro and did an outstanding job. I also appreciate The Book Merchant for selling my books. Ten years ago, I had my first book signing at The Book Merchant.
Thank you, LTLA, for inviting me to speak!

Pictures from LTLA (Louisiana Teen Library Association):

My mom and grandpa with me.

Pa was occasionally asked to sign my book. A task he was more than willing to do.

Friday, February 15, 2008


I first viewed this short film in elementary school. I don't remember ever wondering how the balloon followed and waited for the boy throughout his romp around Paris. At nine or ten, I accepted the magic. Two days ago, I watched it on my flight to Louisiana. Although I enjoyed revisiting, for the entire movie I wondered how the filmmaker acheived the balloon antics. How did he accomplish so much in 1956?

Why couldn't I just delight in the charm of this simple story? Why did I feel the need to peer through the illusion?

If you haven't seen The Red Balloon, I urge you to sit pack and enjoy the magic. For a tiny preview of what you have in store, follow the link below:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008



and live in the Houston, Texas area, register for the 2008 SCBWI-HOUSTON CONFERENCE.

I'll be speaking there along with a host of other folks in the business:

Don Tate, illustrator, artist, cartoonist

Molly O'Neil, editor from Harper Collins

Sarah Cloots, editor from Greenwillow Books

Abigail Samoun, project editor from Tricycle Press

Jennifer Jaeger, agent from Andrea Brown Literary Agency

8:00 am to 4:00 pm

For more information:

I hope to see you there!

Saturday, February 9, 2008


I've loved quilts my entire life. Maybe it's because a quilt tells a story. My grandmother made my first quilt as a high school graduation present. I graduated in the late 70's when polyster knit was all the rage. My quilt reflects that era--a ship pattern made from yellow and green double-knit fabric. It remains one of my dearest treasures.

Years later my mother-in-law gave me a quilt top she made in 1929. She gave it to me because I expressed a desire to start quilting as a hobby. The desire lasted about a month. I never put a stitch in that quilt.

At the time, my grandmother was a part of a quilting bee at the Elwood Baptist Church. They were a group of women that gathered once or twice a week for the friendship as much as for the quilting. I'd known most of those women all my life, and was pleased when they agreed to finish the quilt for me. When it was completed, I gave the quilt to my daughter who could now say that her grandmother started it in 1929 and her great-grandmother finished it more than 60 years later. Now that's a story.

Sometimes writers put treasured items in their books. Like a seamstress's stitches hold a fabric together, those pieces can become threads running through a plot. That's what I did in MISTER AND ME. Without giving away too much, a quilt served an important purpose in that story.

Earlier this week, I was back at Elwood Baptist Church, this time to attend my grandmother's funeral. I saw some of those women who worked their stitches in Shannon's quilt. And when I entered the church's dining hall, I noticed a quilt stretched in a frame, awaiting their next get-together. I wondered if they realized they were making treasure.

Top Photo note:(The Elwood Baptist Church Quilting Bee, quilting my daughter's quilt. My grandmother sits at the north end of the quilt.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I talked about how I always carry a tiny notebook, but I neglected to mention the role they play in my writing.

When I visited the schools on Guam in 2000 I knew that I would write a book set there one day. I didn't know what the book would be about. I only knew the setting pulled at me. During spare moments, I recorded observations in my notebook.

Wind blowing through the palm leaves,

a bend in the trunk like the curve of a woman's hip

Ray Pablo -n- Dianne Atoique 4-ever carved on a bench

Red buses carry Japanese tourists dressed in Hawaiian shirts and straw hats

quarter slices of green papaya served with a sold hotdog

"Make you a deal, a best friend deal"

a wilted yellow hibiscus on the ground

Even now, when I read those words, they take me back. Six months later, I did return where I filled more notebooks, this time with a focus on a story. But the rich details from my tiny notebook played a key role in KEEPER OF THE NIGHT, too. They helped me travel back when the expense of another research trip was not possible.

If you're a writer, you don't have to journey to an exotic island to capture a place. Your local coffee shop or park will do. You don't have to have a particular story in mind. The sensory snippets you record today, may be the rich details that draw a reader to your book tomorrow.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


Often I'm asked if I put real people in my books. My answer is always the same. "No, except once."

When I was writing the first draft of my first book, My Louisiana Sky, I thought the grandmother seemed familiar, but it wasn't until I finished the draft that I realized Granny was a lot like my grandmother, Nanny.

My grandmother was a plain-spoken woman. She could be blunt, but you always knew where you stood with her. And if you were one of her grandchildren that meant she loved you, flaws and all.

One summer she took me to the Rapides Parish Bookmobile and told the librarian that I was only nine, but had read all her Readers Digests cover-to-cover. Some of my memories didn't seem so precious at the time they happened. Like the night she watched from her kitchen window as I kissed my boyfriend.

I will never look at a pansy, or an Avon catalog, or a porch swing without thinking of her. And as a writer whose characters always seem to be searching for home, I can tell you this much--I didn't have to go far to find home in her.

Rest in peace, Nanny.

Zora Butter Willis

May 19, 1916-February 2, 2008


is that you can do it anywhere.