Happy February,

        February is like New Year's Day, the first day of school, and my birthday all rolled into one, because I'm starting my new book HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.  I'd like to tell you about it in a thoughtful way so if you are thinking about writing a children's book, you can follow along.  Keep in mind, every author has their own way of doing things.
     My story has been several years in the making, and I now have a short manuscript written that has been okayed by my editor, Margaret.  This will be revised many times, and usually even fine tuned after a year of working on the art.
     I think about the three elements in a story, character, plot and setting, although the big emphasis is on plot, because that's the hardest for me.  Because my main character is a troll I know the setting will be Scandinavia, where trolls are mythological creatures.  I've been to Norway three times and to Iceland and Denmark, but Sweden will be the setting for my new book because our friends Gudrun  and Elof Eriksson have offered to show us the old family farm and bring us to some remote northern places.  We are planning the trip for late April.  My story about a runaway troll takes place from late summer until winter.  At the very least I'll be able to ID plants and trees which I can supplement with Swedish books about flora and fauna.  For example, if runaway Rollo the troll eats acorns and mushrooms, what kinds of mushrooms grow in northern Sweden?  If he lives with an owl, is it a gray owl?  The owl must nest in a tree.  We will travel to snow-covered northern Sweden to get some ideas about how the terrain will look.  There is a unique environment that occurs near the Arctic Circle.  The stunted Birch trees and rich moss and lichen covered boulders found there I find beautiful and mysterious.  I hope I'll find places like that to visit.  The moss and lichen on the rocks look like artwork.
     In Norway and Iceland I visited open air folk museums and I hope to visit Swedish museums like them.  A very old and typical farmstead is brought piece by piece to the museum setting, reassembled, and furnished with handmade tools, artifacts and textiles so the visitor can imagine life in the olden days.  Part of my book will take place in a trolls' farmhouse/cave which is fairly civilized.  My trolls are not the traditional evil, mean-spirited scary trolls, but are scruffy slightly dim rustic trolls.  I admit they will be cutesified in order to make my plot work.  There are many stories and legends about trolls, and I plan to ask Swedes I meet to offer any family stories passed down to them about trolls.  Here is some troll history I've already dug up.  I will put a (Y) yes or a (N) no, after the troll tidbit which will tell you if I'm going to use it in my book.

Troll tidbits:

     -- Trolls hair grows straight up because they cannot be bothered to brush it.  (Y)
     -- Trolls often have missing or black teeth because they cannot be bothered to brush them.  (Y)
     -- Trolls often wear one gold earring or a jewel in one ear.  (Y)
     -- Trolls have cow-like tails which they loose if married in a church.  (Y, but in a modified version.)
     -- Trolls live under mountains with a mining gold which they work into jewelry and armor.  (N)
     -- Trolls are short and misshapen or tall and misshapen.  (N)
     -- Trolls have ferocious black cats with red eyes.  (N)
     -- Trolls ride pigs.  (Y)
     -- Trolls burst when the light of the sun hits them.  (N)
     -- Trolls have frogs and salamanders living in their hair.  (N but I'm still thinking about it.)

     I will post more troll tidbits when I returned from Sweden.  I will devote a section of my website to troll fun and friends can add to the list of troll traits.  I will post pictures of trolls I see in Sweden.  (That's a joke!)  When I was little, my parents read us a bedtime story about a mother who left her child unattended.  A troll mother, watching from the forest and admiring the laughing sweet tempered human baby, seized the opportunity to switch it with her bad natured bawling one.  At the end of the story she got her baby back, but she had to pay a high price for it.  Whenever my sisters and I acted particularly bad by teasing and by being obnoxious, I often wondered if my mother thought I was a changeling!  I thought it was very funny that I might have spent some time with a troll mother where I may have picked up some bad habits.
     I don't remember how I thought up my story, but I remember reading a traditional story about Lars who ran away after turning very small, small enough to ride on a goose's back.  I did think of running away when I was little, and for very silly reasons.  I liked the adventure of it and the thought of skipping school.  I often will start with a cloudy idea and work on it when I'm running.  Sometimes my runs are a couple of hours long.  If I have a very big hurdle to get over in the storyline, I will solve it by thinking of it before going to sleep and then have the answer when I wake up.  This method is not foolproof and may take lots of tries.
     If you like to write stories, maybe you would like to start your book now and work on it with me.  It takes me a year to do a book.  For a children's book, it should fit a 32 page format.  I usually have no more than 4 pages of typed manuscript.  The book dummy, which show sketches of the main scenes, and where I divide up the type, takes about three weeks to complete.
     Reading aloud your manuscript, or going from longhand to typewritten are two ways to get a clear notion of the story you have internalized.  I will put a story away for several months and not touch it and then read it to get a fresh look.  Of course, when the magic really happens, it's as if the story writes itself.  When that happens, I just throw up my hands and enjoy the creative force that we lucky to tap into from time to time.
     Good luck, your friend,
            Jan Brett