Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Edward Hitchcock

Today, May 24th, we celebrate the 218th anniversary of the birth of minister, geologist, and dinosaur hunter Edward Hitchcock.

Hitchcock himself would have frowned at that last description, of course. He would not have recognized the concept of a dinosaur. He lived in an age when the very word had yet to be invented. The footprints he hunted down, collected, and described in such detail were mysteries to him. Yet that is exactly what modern science has shown him to be. Hunting down the fossilized dinosaur footprints of New England became his passion.

It all started quite by accident. Hitchcock was a respected geologist when someone came to him with an unusual rock. It had a strange three-toed track running across it, as if a turkey had run through mud and left its footprints behind. Hitchcock was hooked. He spent the rest of his life studying the strange trackways that the New England soil coughed up so frequently. He amassed the world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints—some 10,000 individual specimens. He devised a system of classifying the fossil footprints that is used to this day, hunting for clues to the animals that made them. He called these animals “lithichnozoa,” stony track animals. Out of all that passion and many late nights studying rocks by candle light came a new science, the science of ichnology, the study of trace fossils.

Sadly, the one find that would have shed light on the identity of the track makers eluded him. The New England soil was not conducive to the preservation of fossilized bones. Hitchcock had only the footprints, and as it turns out it’s difficult to identify an animal from “the bottom up.” His best guess was that the tracks were left by an extinct species of giant bird. Not a bad guess actually. Edward Hitchcock, dinosaur hunter, worked his whole life and established a new science without ever having met a dinosaur.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Dolley Madison

This week, May 20, we celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the birth of First Lady Dolley Madison.

Let's start at the end of this story. When Dolley Madison died on July 12, 1849, her funeral procession was one of the largest in the history of Washington. The president was there, as was every member of Congress, officers of both the army and the navy, her many friends, and a good many of the citizens of Washington. So who was this celebrated and much-loved lady?

Current opinion seems to have downsized Dolley. I've read too much about her beauty and her love of fashion. She's been cast as a party-girl, and I have to believe that that is a reflection of our own shallow culture. Dolley was beautiful, yes. And she most certainly had a flair for fashion. But this was a woman who had a clear vision of her role as first lady. Dolley knew how to set priorities and hold to them. Think Hillary, not Paris.

Dolley opened the President's House, as it was known then, to everyone. She greeted everyone warmly, as a close friend, and took care to pay special attention to anyone who was alone. She saw her role as one of peacemaker. She knew that politics made for strong opinions, and she sought to soothe ruffled feathers and build consensus wherever possible. In her low-necked gowns and her feathered turbans, Dolley played diplomat.

Her shining moment came when Washington was under attack during the War of 1812. With her husband, President James Madison, away, Dolley stayed at the President's House, packing for an evacuation. The content of those trunks is telling: important government papers, books, a clock, and other furnishings from the White House. With cannons booming, and British troops approaching, she could not be persuaded to leave until these imporatnt items were safe. At the last moment, with servants imploring her to leave, she had the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington removed from its frame, and she packed that, too. She would not let it fall into British hands. Only then did she consent to leave. Later that night, British troops invaded and set fire to the President's House. She watched the flames from a distance.

Those lovely gowns? They burned.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from NESCBWI

If you were there, you know....AWESOME!

I've been home two days now and I'm still riding the wave of enthusiasm that I boarded at the NESBWI Conference in Fitchburg, MA. I felt so fortunate to listen to five wonderful keynotes from the likes of Jane Yolen, Tomie DePaola, Steven Mooser, Lin Oliver, and Harold Underdown. They are, after all, the rock stars of our industry. Jane was funny and numinous (I had to look it up), Tomie was funny and generous, Steven was funny and sweet, Lin was funny and instructive, and Harold (with the help of Mr. P and Mr. O) was funny and encouraging.

It's enough to make me want to add some humor to my own writing. And, with the help of Donna Gephart's great intensive workshop, I just might be able to do that. And Julie Berry's helpful tips will help me to get the thing finished. I was especially happy to have a chance to chat with Loree Griffin Burns, who presented an in-depth look at the research process.

Above all, I count myself fortunate to belong to a group of such generous and supportive professionals. I went to the conference solo, since my regular critique group members were not able to attend. I now know, Jane, how to "touch magic." You plop yourself down with a group and ask, "Mind if I join you?" The result never failed to be magical. I met the nicest, most interesting people, and came away positively enchanted.

But, alas, enchantments end. And I am left with the real world and Lin's advice: Do the work!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Orson Welles

This week, on May 6, we mark the 96th anniversary of the birth of actor, writer, and director Orson Welles.

When I visit schools, I often explain to students why I write nonfiction instead of fiction. I talk about the cool fiction stories that they might have read, stories that are funny or scary or mysterious. “But,” I tell them, “if I tell you a story that is funny, or scary or mysterious, and then I say ‘This really happened…this is a true story,' I think that is magical.” Seeing “Based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie has never failed to make me sit up a little straighter and pay closer attention. The True Story—it just gives me goosebumps.

Orson Welles understood that. He was the one, after all, who found fame for taking a fiction story about an alien invasion and turning it into a mock radio newscast. By recasting H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds as a True Story, Welles managed to give his listeners a ripping good case of goosebumps.

Wells’ novel was already well-known in 1938, when The War of the Worlds was performed as a Halloween broadcast on October 30 of that year. The script for the radio show changed the novel’s setting from nineteenth century London to contemporary New Jersey. It paired an ordinary broadcast of dance music with increasingly ominous news flashes which periodically interrupted the broadcast. The formula mimicked typical radio news broadcasts of the day. It gave the broadcast a unique feeling of immediacy and urgency. The result was widespread panic. People tuning in were led to believe that aliens from Mars were landing in an invasion force—right here, right now. Police stations took hundreds of calls from terrified people convinced the Earth was being invaded. Some swore they could smell poison gas or see flashing lights in the distance.

At the end of the play Welles broadcast a disclaimer reminding listeners that the episode was in honor of Halloween. It was just his equivalent, he said, of “dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’” Don’t believe it. Welles knew just what he was doing. He knew the power of the True Story.