Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Carolina Mantis in Florida - Stagomantis carolina

The venerable lady was on our wall during the winter solstice. She is a Carolina mantis, Stagomantis carolina). We haven't had a freeze yet this year so a lot of these insects are living to ripe, old ages. This one is missing a front leg.  Go here for photos of a grizzled mantis from our yard.

Carolina Mantis - notice that she is missing one of her front legs

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Florida Black Bear

A young Florida black bear visited my yard this afternoon, long enough for me to get a few photographs. Once he or she figured out that I was there, the photo shoot was over. If you want to see some cub photos, check out these cuties in our pine tree.

Florida Black Bear

Monday, December 9, 2013

Florida Black Bears in Swimming Pool

These juvies have been breaking into my pool at night. Finally they've been caught on film!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

New Olivia Brophie Fan Artwork

Everyone knows I love receiving fan artwork! Here is the batch I received today.

Cheeto is a fan favorite

Coral snakes in the Florida Scrub

Here is the scene where Gnat feeds candy to Squirt

I love it when fans draw the giant tardigrades!

A picture of Thunder with a bag of bread

How to write the second book in a series

So, you've written your first book in a series and it's out there in the world. The wonderful thing about book #1 in a series is the coming-of-age, both in the characters and in the story itself. Everything is so new and exciting. In fact, it's magical. Naïve characters discover what's really going on in the world. Their naivete is shattered. They've gone through the portal, lived on the other side, and returned to tell about it. Likewise, your readers have gone through the portal of your writing. They lived there for a couple of hundred pages and now they want more more more.
This is the biggest challenge for your second book.
If you are like me, your first thought is to go deeper into the world you created in book #1. In the Pearl of Tagelus, my characters fall through a sinkhole in the vast aquifer beneath Florida. There, they discover the ruins of an ancient city called Junonia. Junonia is mysterious and filled with unexplainable objects and architecture. There is clearly much more to learn about its history and future.
But...Olivia can only discover it once.
Even if you can fool your characters into discovering it again, you can't fool your readers. If you've written Book #1 the way it should have been, your readers have already visualized what it looks like, what smells like. They've probably already imagined what Junonia must have been like when it wasn't a ruin. They've filled in the picture with their own creativity. That is after all, one of the great things about reading.  You are now competing with your readers' imaginations.
In Olivia Brophie and the Sky Island, I definitely give Junonia a lot more press. Readers will learn a lot more about the Junonian culture and the odd science they practiced. But it wasn't enough. It's imaginative and interesting, but it isn't a portal.
It was my belief that if I couldn't create that "magical coming-of-age" in  Book #2, then Pearl of Tagelus should stay as a stand-alone.
There are a lot of series out there that just go deeper in Book #1's world. To me, that is the equivalent of writing an 800 page book and breaking it up in four 200 page books.  This isn't the end of the world of course.

It is clear that not only do you need to delve deeper into your world, but you have to create a new world as well. You need fresh territory. Your characters need to roam further and further from the familiar.

You need to shake it up.
In the Sky Island, Olivia discovers a new world completely different than Junonia. The secretive people she finds are capable of a limited form of time travel. Their religious and cultural life centers completely on this ability. They've been around long enough to know about Junonia, in fact they are quite blasé about it. My readers will discover this new world with Olivia.

But by the end of Book#2, most of the assumptions I set-up in Book#1 are proven wrong. Characters get smarter. The nature of the universe gets more surprising.

 So my plan when writing the Sky Island was 1) Deeper into the Old World, 2) Discover a New World, and 3) Change Everything. I think it worked. The magic and eye-opening revelation is still there.

Of course, I'm the author. We'll see on January 1, the release date,  what my readers think!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Books for Gifted Middle-Grade Readers

Fiction for gifted middle-grade readers can be difficult to find. Many novels written for that age group are too easy. Venturing into YA fiction yields a lot of kissing fantasy that parents find distasteful and the kids don't quite understand yet. I'm compiling a list of books that have the best of both worlds. Challenging, respectful, and fun-to read, many of these books are part of the middle-grade canon already. I've tried to include plenty of modern books to supplement the classics. These are all appropriate for grades four through seven. I wrote the Olivia Brophie series to appeal to gifted readers. The Pearl of Tagelus is very popular with advanced readers for many of the same reasons the books in this list are. I hope that the Sky Island continues this tradition.
Of course, it is important to allow any young readers to roam freely among the stacks, to follow their own reading interests.

A Wrinkle in Time series (The Time Quintet) by Madeleine L'Engle

The Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

Feed by M.T. Anderson

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

My Side of the Mountain by J.C. George

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

Friday, November 22, 2013

Writing a book for the gifted and children who love to read

When I took a U-turn with my poetry career and started writing Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus, I had many ideas about the content that I wanted to write about, but I only had one goal for the style. I wanted to write a book for the person I was as a middle grader. I was a seriously addicted reader to put it mildly. My singular desire was to read the entire library. I did pretty well too; making it somewhere into the J's.
I knew that this approach wasn't exactly positioning my book for the bulk of the market. I didn't want to write a book for kids who hate reading, however noble that goal is. In fact, the thought of spending years of my life writing for someone who would rather not read was quite a downer.  Many parents have told me however, that middle-grade readers are in a weird purgatory. Books meant for their age group are often way too easy to hold their attention. Conversely, they aren't interested in dating yet so YA fiction is very limited. Adult books are an option, but it is difficult to find books that they can relate to.
I am happy to say that I have been successful in my goal. So what is the secret sauce for writing a book for gifted children?
1) A robust and creative vocabulary. Children can handle an incredible range of vocabulary words, especially if you write enough context that they can figure out the meaning. I loved vocabulary words when I read as a child because they represented miniature puzzles within the story. As a writer, I'm sure you have a great vocabulary at your disposal. Use it! I'm not suggesting every sentence becomes a string of obscure words because that will bog your story down. Some of the cool vocab I used in my book: tombolo, coontie, gingham, operculum. Those are juicy words for any reader!
2) Diversity of subject matter. Math, science, history. Mix it all in. Put some real thought and depth into it. Range free in the breadth of your knowledge and give it all. Kids love this. If you have a nerdy character, make her or him actually nerdy. Don't express their nerdiness through awkward social interactions or a love of Star Trek. That's too easy and quite frankly, lazy. Write them as highly intelligent children who have pursued their intellectual whims. Think of the young boy who can name every dinosaur ever discovered, or the girl who is seriously into seeing how far she can memorize a Fibonacci sequence. Your readers may not know what a Fibonacci sequence is when they start the book, but they should know when they are done. In the Pearl of Tagelus, I wrote Doug as a budding biologist attempting to discover a new species. He spends an inordinate time memorizing Linnaean systemics. So yes, there are Latin names in Pearl of Tagelus. There's even one in the title.
3) Don't ever, EVER talk down to your readers. No reader wants that. Stop worrying if you are writing above your readers heads. You should be able to tackle any level of complexity in your book. If you aren't reaching readers with it, it's because you didn't write it correctly, not because readers aren't capable.
4) A fun story.  Everyone wants that, right?

Deciding to write a book for gifted readers is an exciting moment for a writer. It is a decision to unchain your own limiting behaviors and put all of your capacities into your writing. Stretch yourself and enjoy it!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Wild Florida Aster

I was surprised to see this wild Florida aster blooming today in an ignored part of the yard. For a look at another aster, check out this Climbing Aster

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Egmont Key, Florida

My favorite photo of Egmont Key, Florida taken ten years ago. You can go to Egmont Key by ferry from the pier at Fort Desoto.

Egmont Key, Florida

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cover Reveal for latest installment in the Olivia Brophie series

Here it is. The new cover for Olivia Brophie and the Sky Island, available January 1. The artist is once again Steve Weaver who created the cover for the Pearl of Tagelus. I'm so excited for the Sky Island to be released. I'll tell you why in a later post!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Random Photos from Ireland

The Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland

Wooden grave marker in Ballinskelligs, Ireland

The magical king of Dun a Ri Forest

A river along the Ring of Kerry

Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland

Monday, September 16, 2013

Florida Cinnamon Black Bear in the Scrub

We had a cinnamon bear visit us this evening. Florida black bears are not typically cinnamon, so this one was a surprise! His half-black, half-cinnamon coat was beautiful.

Bear Planking

Giant's Causeway, Bushmills N. Ireland

The Giant's Causeway must be the most popular tourist attraction along the coast of Northern Ireland. Just a short drive away, Dunluce Castle was completely our own, but here countless curiosity seekers scrambled over the rocks like happy ants.  It helps to be patient here as you wait for a tourist-free photograph. In the meantime, enjoy the interlocked basalt columns that betray an ancient volcanic past. These are not basalt crystals but the result of constrained cooling, just as mud cools and fractures into geometric patterns.
As always, if you are able, please take the leisurely stroll to the site rather than the shuttle bus. You will be rewarded with beautiful overviews and an appreciation of the entire site.

The basalt columns comprise the dark point of land in the middle of the photo




A single stone on the Giant's Causeway

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Steps of Skellig Michael, County Kerry Ireland

Skellig Michael is a stunning 6th century monastery built precariously on top of an island off the coast of county Kerry. Due to the boat trip it takes to travel there and the impossible staircase to the top, this place is truly otherworldly. The sightlines on the trip up and down make you feel like you are flying over the cold sea. If you ever have the chance to visit and you are capable of climbing 600+ steps, you should take the opportunity to experience this ancient wonder.

The graceful curve of steps leading to the summit of Skellig Michael



The beehive monastery huts



Monday, August 26, 2013

Baby Florida Gopher Tortoise

The gopher tortoise is born with the right tools for digging

Gopherus polyphemus

Eventually, he overcame his fear and made a hasty retreat

Look at that cute little mug.
Unfortunately, two of his siblings were killed nearby on the road. Cars are a major threat to all ages of gopher tortoise. If you live in the same area as gopher tortoises, please be careful of these gentle animals.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How to Use Skype in your classroom

I was recently invited to speak at Oklahoma's Recharge Technology in the Classroom Conference for teachers. There were over 100 conference sessions and 50 presenters. Mrs Schantz is a third grade teacher in Clinton, OK and I've Skyped with her class several times, so it is only fitting that she presented a "how to" use Skype in the classroom. My role was to be available as a guest speaker for her to Skype and to discuss my perspective as an author.

We had two sessions during the conference. Mrs Schantz had a raffle for my book in each session. Hopefully, I'll make some new classroom friends.

Lucky winner of Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus

In addition to the Skype demo, here is the outline of what she discussed along with some notes that might be helpful.

Skype is a great classroom tool.
  • FREE easy way for you to connect your classroom to the world.
  • Meet new people.
  • Share ideas.
  • Talk to experts

You will need:
  • Computer with video camera
  • Speakers
  • Microphone
  • Install Skype with your own ID
  • Big screen for students to watch
  • High speed Internet

The Ways Mrs Schantz uses Skype:
  1. Connect with international classrooms.
  2. Story time.
  3. Guest lecturers.
  4. Have a mystery call!
  5. Meet book authors

Mrs Schantz's class has connected with classrooms around the world including Brazil and Canada. Her mother-in-law participates in read along events where they each read certain roles. She is currently looking for an elite marathoner to visit with this year's class because their classroom theme is Running to the Finish. Her classes always have a goal to try and meet with classrooms from every state. They use a Skype map to track their progress and its a great tool for teaching geography.

Although you can theoretically Skype with anyone who also has Skype, we highly recommend that you use Skype in the Classroom as a resource to find partners. This site is committed to the education mission and there is a level of professionalism you may not encounter elsewhere. Skype in the Classroom is also the easiest way to find a wide range of quality guest speakers.

Mrs. Schantz's Skype Lesson for Mystery calls

My Skype Lesson. I'm a Skype in the Classroom Guest Speaker.

My advice to teachers using Skype in the classroom.

1. Skype visits should be more structurally interactive than in-person visits. My in-person visits are 75% "lecture" and 25% question and answer. My Skype visits are almost 100% question and answer. This approach builds engagement and interaction. This is critical for Skype visits in my opinion. If you spend most of the time lecturing, the students might as well watch a video. When I do in-person visits, I actually try to dial-back the amount of interaction because an auditorium of 200 children quickly gets out of control.

2. Test your connection, video, and sound with your Guest before the day of the visit. It is much easier to work through technical issues when there aren't 25 kids looking over  your shoulder. Plus, the time you have with your Guest is limited.

3. Discuss with your Guest what your expectations are for the visit. Because it is so easy to schedule a Skype visit, we sometimes forget to be clear and thorough with what we are trying to get from the visit.

4. Call your Guest when your classroom is ready, as opposed to having your Guest call you. Be clear about this.

5. All start times for visits should include Time Zone info!

6. Keep in mind that when more than one person is talking on an internet line, it gets very difficult to hear anything. Keeping the classroom quiet while a student is asking a question is very helpful.

Here is Mrs. Schantz's classroom blog:

I Skype with classrooms who have read Olivia Brophie and the Pearl of Tagelus, but I've also visited classrooms who simply want to know how to become an author. I've talked to science classes who are interested in how to be amateur scientists. I've even given guest lectures on subjects like POV, setting, and voice.

Please contact me if you are interested in a Skype visit with your classroom!