The Joy of Question and Answer

From the moment we decided back in March or April that we were going to do school at home the next year, my kids and I have gotten into the habit of answering any and all inquiries with “We should learn about that for school.”

By “inquiries,” I mean the endless rounds of “Mom, why is _____ like that?” or “How come ________?” or “What’s the difference between __________ and __________?” that little kids manage to think of and to which parents usually respond, “I don’t know — it just is.”

So yeah, my clever we-should-learn-about-that answer was really just another way to put off their questions for later.

Suddenly later has arrived.

In some ways balancing school with a toddler, kindergartener and second grader has been a chaotic nightmare. All four of us have had moments crying in frustration. At least every other day I think this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever attempted and I should really just send the two older kids back to “real” school. If the kindergartener reads one ten-page book and writes one sentence, and the second grader reads for fifteen minutes and writes a one-page story, and they each recite ten math facts (addition for the younger and multiplication for the elder), some days we (sadly) call that good.

But it’s August, and I started in August on purpose, figuring it gives us a month to settle into a routine before we judge ourselves too harshly.

The part that is beautiful, though, is when little moments happen where they discover the answers to their own questions.

Today we went to the library to find nonfiction books at their reading levels about specific animals, after studying library books about mammals, reptiles, etc, last week. The kindergartener declared he wanted to learn about leopards, and the second grader decided on cheetahs, and then he stopped and asked, “Mom, what’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?”

“I don’t know,” I responded truthfully, “but maybe we’ll find a book that can tell us.”

“How could a book do that?”

I laughed a little, and it gave him a minute to think about his own question.

“Oh, like maybe it could say that cheetahs have gray spots and leopards have black spots?”

“Something like that.”

When we got through the chaos of the library (three children scattering in different directions as I tried to herd them toward juvenile nonfiction), the chaos of lunch back at home (three children asking for different things all at once), and the chaos of who would get to play educational apps on the iPhone first (two children doing rock-paper-scissors, the loser trickling tears), I finally got to sit down with my second grader as he read National Geographic Kids: Cheetahs.

And there, on the second page spread, was an awesome explanation of the difference between cheetahs and leopards.

It was one of those cool moments, sitting on the couch together and watching him get so excited to learn because it was something he’d wanted to know.

Isn’t that the secret to real learning? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as my own love of and cravings for nonfiction have increased in the last couple years. When I have a specific question I want to answer, whether about nutrition or herbs or gardening or the science of subtle energy, I get so freaking excited about every cool little answering fact I read that I can’t help telling everyone nearby, “Did you know that ________??”

Seeing it happen for my seven-year-old today with cheetahs vs. leopards made me remember why I’m keeping my kids home this year. It recalled the first-grade days of him returning from school declaring it was so hard and so much work and me wishing that I could help him find the joy of it. It reminded me of how much a comment from one of my fellow-mom friends last year had resonated with me:

“Isn’t the most important part of education for them to learn how to learn?”

We’ve got a long way to go to become good at this school-at-home business, but I think their enthusiasm for questions and answers is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.

An Instagram Tour of the West Coast

As we crossed the Willamette River with downtown Portland on our right, I couldn’t help holding my phone up to the open window and trying to snap a shot between fences and railings and pillars. And of course, a second later, I had to upload the image to Instagram and play with the square cropping and the filters and the brightness until I was smiling at my accomplishment: a little 600×600-pixel souvenir uniquely mine.

I’m still not sure what it is about the filters and such that make me so addicted to Instagram. I often put my phone in airplane mode just so I can edit photos to my heart’s content without overwhelming the people who follow me (in airplane mode, Instagram saves the image to your phone but can’t update to the social media; this might be cheating, but I’m in favor of it). There’s something about choosing a “feel” and “tone” for each picture that makes me super happy.

So as I thought about how I could recap our five-day adventure, I thought Instagram might be a perfect way to show it.

Oregon Coast

We took an elevator down into a huge sea-lion cave, ate seafood on a pier, and camped in a round canvas-lined yurt near a lighthouse and a coast full of soft white sand dunes. The ocean was way too cold unless you had a full-body wetsuit, like the surfers we watched, but our kids had a fun time rolling down the hills while I searched for starfish and anemones along the jetty. No starfish found, but lots of squishy-looking sea-green anemones and spiral-shelled hermit crabs.

Coastal Redwoods

Here the beach sand was gray and coarse. It was strange to me how the trees actually didn’t seem much taller than they had in Oregon, maybe because I’d been expecting them to be even taller or maybe because my vantage point on the ground didn’t do them justice. At a coastal trail head we stopped at (but didn’t hike, since it was 10.5 miles round trip), the path was deep brown, almost muddy from all the moisture but still firm enough to walk on, and ferns and moss covered everything but the trail itself, some ferns shooting up into the air and others spreading out wide.

Avenue of the Giants

The forest here was drier than along the coast, giving plenty of places for walking around and exploring and poking at banana slugs. We also discovered plenty of tree houses or tunnels carved into redwood stumps for visitor amusement.

California Highway 1

South of the Avenue of the Giants, there’s a turnoff for a scenic drive that’s easy to miss. Highway 1 wound us through forests in a serpentine, nausea-inducing route until it suddenly opened to the coast, taking us along the ocean line high above the waves on grass-covered cliffs. Along the way we found little towns like Fort Bragg, where we stumbled on a classic car show while our pizza baked.

San Francisco

Our stay here was way too short, but we managed to squeeze in a drive down the windiest street and then dinner (our third day in a row of clam chowder!) and sightseeing on Pier 39. The view of San Francisco, Alcatraz, and a little herd of sea lions was awesome; even Instagram can’t do those justice.


This region wasn’t what I was expecting. The trees and plants were rougher, sort of scraggly looking as their jagged silhouettes jutted out to the sides. The rocky shores seemed as if someone had hacked at them with a huge dull knife that hadn’t cut all the way through, leaving plenty of cracks and crooked edges. And the houses were a mix of styles: some with the painted siding and wood shingles we were used to seeing all along the coast next to others with the red-tile roofs and stucco exteriors of a more deserty local.

Point Lobos

At a marine reserve just south of Monterey we discovered a herd of thirteen harbor seals on a rock close to shore (in the first picture, it’s the little island on the left side in front of the cliff side). They were all different shades of brown and spotted darker or lighter (some of them had spots that were almost white) to blend in with the rocks. The shoreline was pebbled instead of sandy, the sea weed was glossy, the wildflowers short and small, but all of it was multicolored and beautiful. If only we could have gotten as close to the seals as to the squirrel that came begging for treats!

From Big Sur to Ventura

While we didn’t stay completely true to Highway 1 all the way down, we kept to it as much as possible. For long stretches the fog thwarted our view, making it feel pointless to be driving next to an ocean we couldn’t see. But every time the sky opened again we felt compelled to stop for more photos. We also stopped to watch goofy-looking creatures called elephant seals flip sand onto themselves as they lounged on a beach far from civilization. Sandy beaches for people were somewhat scarce, but we finally found a great place to stop in Santa Barbara: Leadbetter Beach with a great little cafe right on the sand. Wish I’d taken a picture of the yummiest shrimp tacos I’ve ever had.


Monday morning we had only a couple of hours to spare before rushing to LAX, but we stopped along the Walk of Fame to get pictures of El Capitan Theater and the little Disney ice cream shop next door. The street was blocked off for the premiere of Brave and the Disney store had tons of scaffolding outside for some kind of remodel, but I managed to click shots of a few details that I wanted.

University of Southern California

This stop was purely research, but the kids amused themselves at a fountain outside one of the libraries while I photographed the McCarthy Quad. I loved the landscape details of Los Angeles, like the huge strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees, leaving them smooth and pale yellow and bare underneath; the scruffy beards of the palm trees; and the purple blossoms of the jacaranda trees that littered the lawn beneath them and infused the air with a gorgeous fragrance.

All in all, the photos don’t show enough of what it was like, especially the wildlife. The harbor seals were my favorite by far, watching me as attentively as I watched them. I wish I had pictures proving how ridiculous the noses of those elephant seals looked or audio of the strange roaring/honking/barking/growling of the sea lions (the wind obscured the sound every time I tried to record it).

But still, I love my little square souvenirs.

A Research Drive

Let me tell you when research becomes not only fun but outrageously exciting.


It’s when you travel to research the setting of your novel in person.

For years, I’ve been wanting to drive down the West Coast, from Portland to Ensenada, just like my characters do in the novel I’m now querying. Finally, it’s happening!

I partially credit post-cruise blues. The day we got back, we were ready for another vacation. It didn’t take much convincing as far as, “Want to miss three days of work and camp along the coast with the kids?” But forking over the funds to fly to Portland, rent a car, and fly home from LA? Well, since the novel hasn’t sold yet, we’re calling it an investment and a leap of faith.

Maybe this research trip will create big changes for the novel. Maybe it will only add that “touch of verisimilitude” that Stephen King suggests in On Writing. But either way, I am so thrilled!

One goal that I have for my writing is that readers will feel like they’re there , and so far when I’ve written descriptions I’ve done my best to make guesses, based on what I could Google or imagine, but nothing can substitute for gathering input from all five of my senses at once, experiencing the climate, the vegetarian, the weather, the beach sand, and everything else for myself. I want readers to experience that amazing drive down Highway 1 vicariously through my novel, and now I get to make that happen!

The cruise, by the way, was awesome. And while I didn’t work on my new novel quite as much as I thought I would, I did get some fundamental storyline questions figured out, so I’m very much excited to press forward with a new manuscript, too, even while polishing my “finished” one with setting details.

Pin Your Interests

I have a new obsession, which is a dangerous thing for a writer. Anything that eats time, unless it’s one of the five necessities (family, church, food, work, sleep) leaves less time for writing. Email is often the culprit when I’m on my computer, but this week it’s something far more addicting.

Pinterest. It’s an electronic bulletin board, basically. And you get to have as many boards as you want. And pin up as many photos on those boards as you want. And look at everybody else’s boards and copy their photos to your boards. And rearrange them. And rename them. And feel this absolutely glee in compiling and organizing all these awesome ideas.

Until you realize how much time has now been sucked away when you should have been writing.

But. I like to think I’m pretty good at justifying my non-writing time when I want to. I turn my side hobbies into writing analogies all the time, right? Reading is obvious (you cannot be a good writer unless you read!). Then there was the crocheting post, the appliqued crib set, the gardening analogies.

And I quickly realized Pinterest had more to offer my writing than just an analogy.

Pinterest could hold my writing ideas for me!

I’ve only just gotten started, doing quick searches for setting details that I need to describe better in my manuscript, like the ocean caves they visit, the tide pool, the sea-lion Wendy meets. And now instead of having to copy and paste it into a Word document or save a big file folder of pictures, it’s all in one spot online that also keeps track of where I found it and mandates captions (so I’ll remember what it is and why I pinned it there — a definite problem in my file folder version). Fantastic!

At some point I’ll probably need different boards for different novels, and I’m sure my followers on Pinterest will wonder a little at the randomness of what I’m pinning, but I’m thrilled. Photos can make a big difference for helping me create descriptions that ring true. And now I’ll have a whole collection to draw from that is one step easier than my previous attempts.

(So long as I can pull myself away from the home, garden, crafting, quoting, travel, fashion, etc, boards that distract me a little too easily.)

Have you tried Pinterest yet? What would you use an online bulletin board to keep track of?

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The Trouble with Reality: Research Required

Friends and family I haven’t seen for a while often ask the same question when we get together: “How’s the writing going?”

I love it — both that they think of me as a writer and that they care how my (thus far non-paying) career is progressing. But at the same time I feel like my answer is a let down: “The draft’s in the same shape it was in August. Haven’t touched it since then. Baby and all.” So I usually say instead, “It’s so close. Just needs another polishing draft and I can send it off to agents.” And I leave off the fact that that hasn’t changed since Baby #3 was born.

What exactly does a polishing draft mean? How close am I really? Well, every now and then when I find enough time to even open my writing files on my computer and dive back into them, I discover the overwhelming truth of it: there’s a lot to polish.

Now that we’re back from California, it’s dawning on me that I should have made some effort to do live research while we were there. Home for only five days, I’m smacking my forehead on the kitchen table (i.e. “desk”) for not — at the very least — visiting Hollywood Boulevard, where a major turning point happens in my novel. I haven’t been there since a high school choir trip, and I definitely wasn’t looking for the same details then.

Details are what a “polishing” draft boils down to for me.

When I first write a story, it’s a free-flow sort of experience, just letting my imagination pull ideas together without terribly many restrictions. For the road trip in my novel, I glanced at a map now and then to be sure they were headed in the right direction, but I didn’t bother with specifics.

That’s what I’m having to fix now. Even with the internet (and how did anyone research before that, holy cow?!), it’s tedious to find and fix what I need to know. I have Google Earth open in one window (so I can take street-level virtual tours), Google Maps in another (for the “big picture”), photo-search results and specific addresses tossed into a junk-drawer–like document, the manuscript in another window to see what I need to look up, etc, etc.  

It’s enough to make me want to write strict fantasy, where I can totally make everything up.

Except that — even in fantasy — I sincerely appreciate a well-researched novel. I’m thinking of how Juliet Marillier visited Transylvania to capture the setting right for Wildwood Dancing. And then I could be doing something much harder, like *gasp* historical fiction. I heard Sara Gruen spent three years traveling around researching the old circus trains to write Water for Elephants.

But for mildly fantastic contemporary fiction, here’s one example of how reality, once researched, can mess with my story.

In the Hollywood Boulevard scene, they park along the street, separate to find the celebrity stars they want to see, and then something happens at a particular star that sends them running to that spot. Well, now that I’ve actually looked into it, I’ve found out a few things, like that the stars my characters go to find are at opposite ends of the Walk of Fame, and that the star where the pivotal moment happens doesn’t have street parking next to it.

Minor details, in a way, but now that I’ve literally mapped out the scene, I can polish it by making it more real: judging when each character would make it from where they were to where they’re going, figuring out how they’ll get back to the car since the street parking is at least a few blocks away, adding descriptions of the shops around them to give readers a clearer mental image (now that I have a clearer image), and throwing in one or two relevant bits of trivia, like when one of my characters asks where Alfred Hitchcock’s star is, the character Googling the addresses can ask, “Which one? He’s got two: film and TV.”

Okay, actually, that doesn’t sound like so many changes. I can totally do this! A little research goes a long way! Don’t stop believin’! All of that!

That took one day of research to map out the scene. It’ll be at least another day to implement the changes. And only several dozen more scenes to go. (Other recent research questions: How does a torn wing affect a butterfly’s flight? What’s the layout of the parking lot at Wilson High School in Portland, OR? What style of house would my main character likely have in southwest Portland?)

At least it’s a start.

And if I’m being honest, researching is kind of fun. Especially thanks to Google Earth.

Even more fun will be to actually travel the route my characters take and add the fun sensory details of sounds and smells that Google Earth can’t give me, but I’ll save that for once the manuscript actually sells and my baby’s a little older.

What do you think of research? Tedious? Fun? Painful? How much do you notice or appreciate research that’s gone into a novel to make it feel more real?

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Grueling Greats: Grading and Grammar

Some of my community college students once asked me how long it takes to grade one set of papers, and I shrugged and told them I wasn’t sure. Usually I try to spread it out over a few days, so I’d never really added up the hours.  

Well, now I know the answer. This week I did something stupid and left it all for the last day. I made awesome progress on my WIP during the days I should have been grading, but then of course I was cursing myself all day yesterday as I spent six and a half hours reading and marking 19 eight-to-ten-page student papers. The only breaks I took were to pick up my son from preschool, to make both boys a sandwich, and to microwave myself a burrito.  

It was grueling.  

And that was just for the beginning comp class. I don’t even want to think about the twenty-something websites I still need to read and grade for my intermediate class this week.  

On my students’ end, writing the assignments is also grueling, of course, but in my course they have the added “joy” of what I’ve termed The Grammar Project. It’s a twice-weekly assignment that covers twenty grammar concepts over the course of the semester. Each web page has a long list of professional examples of the concept, then explanations, then student samples, then a place for students to write their own analysis or definition and their own sample sentence.  


What surprises me every semester is how much I get out of grading papers and how much they get out of The Grammar Project.  

When I grade their papers, I get to benefit from all their research and life experiences. I learn about the latest trends in technology, about the current arguments in bioethics, about diseases I wasn’t aware of, and also about my students. I learn about the experiences they’ve already had in their 20–30 years of life and how those experiences have made them passionate to share about education, marriage, home buying, depression, therapy, alcoholism, drug abuse, gang involvement, and so much more.  

Honestly, I love that my students can teach me so much.  

This time around, the real stand-out paper included this image in its appendix:  

Just one of thousands of examples of how alcohol companies make beer attractive to children

The paper was about the crime of alcohol companies appealing to young kids, and the student backed it up with not only excellent research but also his own experiences of being persuaded by ads that alcohol was cool, which led him to become an alcoholic by the age of 20. On top of that, he told about friends of his and also the experience of talking with his seven-year-old nephew after a beer commercial came up.  

(He made a video presentation to go along with the paper, and it was incredible, with his nephew and niece narrating about how many images of alcohol fantasies a kid will see growing up as hundreds of ads like the frog one flash across the screen too fast to count.)  

Can I even tell you how cool it is as a teacher to see students creating that level of rhetoric, being that passionate and persuasive about an important issue?  

It’s definitely a major highlight for me.  

And on the flip side, when I asked last night, at our final class (the “exam” that was mostly about eating pizza while writing letters to next semester’s class), what the most beneficial part of the course was, they said The Grammar Project.  

One student even went ahead and admitted that they’d all probably complained as they were doing it, but it was still incredibly helpful.  


I would have expected comments about the video clips we watched and activities we did in class, or about making websites or visual projects. You know, something that was fun and educational at the same time.  

Funny how the grueling parts of life and education are also often the most worthwhile.  

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