Author Q & A: Barbara Renner

US author Barbara Renner has written eight picture books that all contain facts about wildlife and include QR Codes so the animal calls can be heard.


What is the book you most clearly remember from when you were a child?
I liked to read mysteries, so the books I remember reading as a young girl are the Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene. I still have my original collection.

Did you ever write a fan letter to an author? If so, who to, and did they write back?
No, I don’t recall writing a fan letter to an author. If so, it probably would have been to Carolyn Keene. I wanted to be Nancy Drew.

How did you learn to write? What is one writing book or website you’d recommend to anyone else wanting to learn?
The creative writing class in high school and a writing class at Arizona State University were very influential in forming my love for writing. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of webinars. I would recommend books by Ann Whitford Paul and articles by Harold Underdown to learn about the craft of writing picture books.

What is your favourite hobby or activity that has nothing to do with writing or reading?
Walking, hiking, gardening, playing golf, and anything outdoors are the activities I enjoy the most. I also love to travel – anywhere and everywhere.

Who is your favourite author right now?
Just one? To name a few, my favorite authors are Kate DiCamillo, Jane Yolen, Lisa Genova and Erma Bombeck

Do you have a new book coming out soon?
The second book in my Trumpeter Swan series, Summer! Time to Search for Food, will be available this summer. I’m also working on a book about my dog, Larry’s Words of Wisdom. It will be ready by the end of the year.

What are you writing these days?
I’m working on two informational fiction picture books. One book is about two female painted turtles who intuitively feel it’s time to leave their lake and find soft, sandy soil. They encounter several dangerous obstacles, one of which is crossing a busy road. The other book is about a roadrunner who wants to compete in a flying contest with his raptor friends. I also write a weekly blog on my website and am making the final revisions to the Larry’s Words of Wisdom book.

Do you write regularly, or just when you feel like it?
Since I’ve had so much free time lately, I’ve been writing almost every day.

How do you like editing and revising?
Unfortunately, I tend to edit as I write, which is why I haven’t tackled writing a novel . . . yet. After my critique partners give me feedback on my picture book manuscripts, I let them cure for a while, and then I’m ready to revise. Actually, it’s quite exciting to see how the story will change.

Can you share one strange, weird or wonderful thing about you?
I tend to be a little OCD. My spices are alphabetized, and my desk is either in terrible disarray or well organized with papers in folders and trays.

What’s the answer to the one question you wished I had asked?
What are your plans for the near future?
My friend and I are taking a river cruise up the Rhine River in April 2021, and I want to travel to either Scotland or the Scandinavian countries with my adult children next summer.

Thanks, Barbara

Find out more about Barbara Renner
     Check her website
     Find her books through

Next up: Mark David Smith

If you, or a writer you know, would like to be interviewed, please contact me.





Author Q & A : Lee Edward Födi

is an author, illustrator, and specialized arts educator—or, as he likes to think of himself, a daydreaming expert. He lives a creative life in Vancouver, BC, with his wife, Marcie and son, Hiro.


What is the book you most clearly remember from when you were a child?
I remember The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which our teacher read to us in school—and all of the Oz books. I loved the wonderful art-deco design and illustrations.

Did you ever write a fan letter to an author? If so,  who to, and did they write back?
As someone who teaches creative writing to tweens and teens, I help my students write fan letters all the time. I’m very passionate about this because, when I was a kid, I don’t think I realized that I could possibly connect with an author that way!

How did you learn to write? What is one writing book or website you’d recommend to anyone else wanting to learn?
As a kid, I learned to write from reading. These days, I think it’s still the number-one way I learn to write. I read a lot of books for the age-level (middle-grade) and genre (fantasy-adventure) that I write for. I do also read books about writing; the number-one book I love about creativity is Steal Like an Artist (and the two follow-up books, Show Your Work and Keep Going) by Austin Kleon.

What is your favourite hobby or activity that has nothing to do with writing or reading?
I feel like writing oozes into every crack of my life. I do a lot of drawing and prop-building, but those are all inevitably connected either directly or non-directly to my books. I am a big believer in cross-creativity; all things are connected. Even when I’m riding my bike, it’s good thinking time. I work out a lot of story or plot questions while walking or pedaling.

Who is your favourite author right now?
I have many authors I admire. Terry Pratchett is my all-time favorite, but others include Tony DiTerlizzi, Kate Dicamillo, and Linda Sue Park.

LEF3Do you have a new book coming out soon?
My latest book, The Guardians of Zoone, just came out in March and I have a brand-new title coming out in the Fall of 2021 with HarperCollins. I can’t say the title yet, but it’s about a girl who is failing wizard school.

What are you writing these days?
I’m currently in rewrites for the wizard school book I mentioned above and a spare corner of my brain is working on another, unconnected story about a girl who works for a delivery service in a fantasy world.

Do you write regularly, or just when you feel like it?
I’m writing pretty much every day—whether it’s sitting at my computer, doodling in my sketchbook, building a dragon egg, or staring off into space.

How do you like editing and revising?
Whenever I get an editorial letter from my editor, I have this moment of dread because I know she’s going to really, really push my story—and that means a lot of work. But after I’ve absorbed all the changes, ideas, and suggestions she has provided me with, I’m generally feeling left excited and invigorated to dive back into that world. So, I guess you could say I ultimately like it. Emotional stuff is easier for me—figuring out how characters react and respond. It’s piecing and arranging plot points that I find the most challenging. It’s like putting together a puzzle!

Can you share one strange, weird or wonderful thing about you?
I don’t know if this is wonderful thing, but my students are obsessed with the fact that I hate ketchup. There have been MANY stories written about me facing ketchup, or being poisoned by ketchup (I’m not sure why they think it will poison me), or being drowned in ketchup. In any case, I encourage these stories—when students decide to pick on me in stories, it at least gives them something to write about and it distracts them from picking on each other!

What’s the answer to the one question you wished I had asked? : What is the favourite book you’ve written
The answer: It’s usually the book I’m currently writing or the one that I’m about to write . . . I love the phase of writing a book, when everything is still possible, and all this potential exists. Once the book is printed and released, it has left my creative sphere and then I can no longer play with it!

Thanks, Lee!

Learn more about Lee and his books:
Check out Lee’s website

His books published by Harper Collins
His books published by Simply Read

Lee’s books
The Guardians of Zoone, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2020
The Secret of Zoone, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2019

Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen, Simply Read Books, 2015
Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah, Simply Read Books, 2014
Kendra Kandlestar and the Shard from Greeve, Simply Read Books, 2014
Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger, Simply Read Books, 2013
Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers, Simply Read Books, 2013

Next up: Barbara Renner

If you or a children’s author you know would like to be featured, email me for information. 


Author Q&A: K.A. Wiggins


K.A. Wiggins is a BC writer who writes speculative fiction exploring society, environmental crisis, and identity through intricate, dreamlike tales of monsters and magic.


Is there a book you most clearly remember from when you were a child?
When I was 5, I spotted a copy of The Hobbit during a move and nagged to read it for two years until I was “old enough.” But I also read The Chronicles of Narnia (all 7!) 3 times a year from age 7-12, so it’s maybe a tie.

Did you ever write a fan letter to an author? If so, who to, and did they write back?
No way, too scary! I prefer watching from a distance and occasionally liking a Tweet or something.

How did you learn to write? What is one writing book or website you’d recommend to anyone else wanting to learn?
I’ve read so many books, I think all the words just kind of sunk in.
I tell the kids in my writing workshops it’s the kind of work where you mostly learn by doing. But for those who like research too, the incredible blog at adapted into several books) is my number one recommendation for both aspiring and pro writers. It has both writing and business-for-authors content.

What is your favourite hobby or activity that has nothing to do with writing or reading?
I love making music, particularly in a band. Rock star would have been my second choice of career—but thankfully writing is more quarantine friendly.

 Who is your favourite author right now?
Louise Penny is utterly brilliant, but in kidlit specifically? Brenna Yovanoff is a perennial fave and I cannot wait for Christelle Dabos’s next book to be translated.

Do you have a new book coming out soon?
I do (finally!)

It’s so new the cover hasn’t even dropped yet, But Black the Tides, book 2 in a YA series set in a post-climate-crisis Vancouver with bonus monsters from folklore & legend, is set for a September release
( . . . and might be bumped up even sooner if all the behind-the-scenes pieces fall into place!)

What are you writing these days?
I’ve been doing a lot of creepy (or in one case, gross-out hilarious) short fiction for magazines and anthologies between novels, but my next release has a doozy of a cliffhanger so I’d better get on writing the sequel or my readers will be hunting me down.

Do you write regularly, or just when you feel like it?
I write when I can find the time, and when I have a project to finish, but not on a daily schedule (I believe in taking breaks, or at least weekends!)

How do you like editing and revising?
NOT a fan of editing and revising, but occasionally it’s inevitable.

Can you share one strange, weird or wonderful thing about you?
I LOVE public speaking—which is super weird to those who know me, and also to all the normal folks who have nightmares about it! The bigger the crowd the better (small groups are stressful!)

Somehow, I’m both a flaming introvert who can happily spend weeks indoors working and also a natural performer and teacher at the same time?

What’s the answer to the one question you wished I had asked?
What’s your number one tip for new and aspiring authors?
I get this all the time in live speaking situations and never manage to spit the right answer out (it’s hard to think and talk at the same time, okay?).

      So here it is: Go create things, go share things, and then move on to the next thing. I 100% struggle with this too, but done is much better than perfect, you learn by trying and FINISHING things, and you build an audience and a career by getting your words OUT into the world. Good luck!

 Read more about the author

Next up: Lee Edward Fodi

Author Q&A: Laura Langston


LAURA LANGSTON’s published books include more than twenty for preschoolers, school aged kids and teens. She lives on Vancouver Island, BC.


What was your favourite book when you were a child?
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White was one of my favorites.

Did you ever write a fan letter to an author? If so, who to, and did they write back?
I never did. As a child, authors were exalted and unapproachable. In fact, when I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she encouraged me to find a job that normal people could do. Since I’m not normal, I became a writer anyway.

How did you learn to write for children? And what books or websites helped you learn what you need to know?
I learned by reading and writing.
It’s hard to recommend just one. Some book suggestions: On Writing by Stephen King; A Writer’s Guide to Fiction by Elizabeth Lyon and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

What is your favourite activity that has nothing to do with writing or reading.
Gardening and cooking. They are inextricably linked in my life. Followed closely by travel to places with beautiful gardens and fabulous cuisines.

Who is your favourite kids’ author now?
I have many favorite authors, depending on my mood, what’s going on in my life at the time, etc. I particularly love Michael Morpurgo and I’m just about to start reading Boy Giant: Son of Gulliver.

LL3 (5)Do you have a new book coming out soon? 
My latest YA, No Right Thing was just released by Crwth Press. It’s a character-driven novel about a young woman who learns that one good deed can have unpredictable and far-reaching consequences. It’s my first title with Crwth and they were fabulous to work with.

What are you writing these days?
I tend to juggle multiple projects. I’m currently halfway through a draft of a middle grade novel about a girl who is a hypersensitive; I’m brainstorming my next YA; and I’m working on an adult novel under my Laura Tobias name.

Do you write regularly, or just when you feel like it?
I write regularly, except when I don’t. 😊 I tend to write five days a week, a throwback to my routine when my kids lived at home.

How do you like editing and revising?
I adore editing and revising. It’s probably my favorite part of the writing process. I love to see the story grow and change.

Can you share one weird or wonderful thing about you?
I once travelled to Russia with a group of Swedes. I speak neither Russian nor Swedish.

What question do you wish I had asked…
What’s your secret talent?

I may not know Russian or Swedish, but I am fluent in dog speak.

Thanks, Laura.

Check Laura’s website.
Take at look at the Cwrth Press website

(Next up: Lee Edward Fodi) 


Author Q&A : Who will be first? Oh look! It’s me.

I am running some brief  author interviews here –
how often and how many will depend on how many authors
respond to my request.

If you would like to be included, contact me for a list of questions.

I am going to answer them myself first, to give you an idea of what we’ll be talking about.


What is the book you most clearly remember from when you were a child?
The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier and Laughing Time by William Jay Smith

Did you ever write a fan letter to an author? If so, who to? And did they write back?
I wrote to the British author Malcom Saville when I was about nine. He wrote back. I know it was him because I checked the signature with a wet finger… these were the days when people wrote with pen and ink.

How did you learn to write? What is one writing book or website you’d recommend to anyone else wanting to learn?
I learned most by reading. But the three how-to writing books I would rescue from a fire first are How Fiction Works by James Wood, Writing Personal Poetry by Sheila Bender and Imaginative Fiction by Janet Burroway

What is your favourite hobby or activity that has nothing to do with writing or reading?
I sketch and do photography. (Who knows. One day I might even be able to use my sketches and photos in my work.)

Who is your favourite kids’ author now?
That’s not a fair question. What if I forget some? Okay, Just for now. Frank Cottrell Boyce. Polly Horvath. Linda Bailey. Tim Wynne-Jones…

Do you have a new book coming out soon?
My kids nonfiction book about homelessness should be out in the next year or two. But nothing is certain right now as so much is changing in publishing and everywhere else.

What are you writing these days?
A picture book set in India called The Cranes and the Motorcycle,  a midgrade novel The Midnight Carousel and a UK historical novel about the Children’s Strikes of 1911 called Spare the Rod.

Do you write regularly, or just when you feel like it?
I write when I feel like it, which is pretty regularly. Probably on six out of seven days a week I put in four to five hours writing, now that I am ‘properly’ retired.

How do you like editing and revising?
Love it. But it can be as scary and exciting as a roller-coaster ride. (Actually, it’s better than that – I’ve only been on one once and plan never to do it again.) Editing and revising work can be just as creative as writing the first draft. You never know what might show up.

Can you share one strange, weird or wonderful thing about you?
I’m going to be lazy, and send you here to find out.


What’s the answer to the one questions we have not asked.
What’s the favourite book that you have written?
That’s like asking someone who is their favourite child… (Probably The Paper House. Or maybe The Ballad of Knuckles McGraw. Or Silver Rain…) Actually, it might be A Star in the Water. That’s the sequel to my first book Meeting Miss 405. It did not get published, but I made a few limited edition copies that I give away at schools and libraries as prizes. I think I have three copies left.


Cheers for now.

Where to learn more about me and my books:
Right here on my website.
At my publisher’s website
On my Facebook page.

I happily include links to author websites, publisher pages, etc. But I do not include links to Amazon. If you choose to sell through or buy books from them that is your choice, of course. But because of the company’s appalling working conditions and  the way they undermine local independent bookstores, I don’t support them in any way. However, I do understand that for some self-published authors, AZ offers a platform for selling their work.

Writers’ ZOOM Room

I miss my students, classes and classrooms.
I miss teaching.
I miss all that I learn from every writer who crosses my path.

So I am going to do what so many people are doing these days with limited options for personal interaction.
I am going to test run a couple of writing presentations online.

The first presentation on TUESDAY JUNE 2 at 2 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time) is FREE to the first dozen people who sign up. (I know some ZOOM sessions welcome many more participants, but I am going to keep the group small until I can figure out how to make this work in a way that benefits everyone).

 The 75-minute session ‘Reverse Outlining – a novel approach to revision’ is designed mainly for people writing novels – for readers of all ages. But it might also work for anyone writing memoirs. I have presented this in a number of physical venues over the years, and participants seem to have found it useful.

It came about because while I am not an outliner – which in some circles makes me a ‘pantser’ – I do like systems that help me figure out what I have done and what I still need to do. It’s a process I have used on a number of my own projects, including my last book Three Good Things.

If this first presentation goes well, on alternate weeks following I hope to offer:

  • How to Breathe Life into the Germ of an Idea
    We all get great ideas. This presentation will help you mine your own imagination – and others’ – for ways to bring them to life. 
  • The View from Here: The pleasures and perils of point of view
    Establishing – and maintaining – an effective point of view can make or break a story.
  • Story Craft – considering plot and theme and (almost) everything else
    Story is at the heart of all fiction – and most non fiction and memoir. Explore a handful of ways to develop a story that resonates for the reader.

For these – and subsequent presentations I will suggest a ‘voluntary donation’ – payable by eTransfer or by mailing me paper money – of $5 to $20, which I will ask you to send me after the presentation, if you have found it worthwhile. This will go towards the cost of the annual fee for the ZOOM account, and once that is paid off I will donate all other contributions to the Nanaimo Unitarian Shelter.

Yes. I will be providing handouts – some before and others after the presentation is over.

No. I will not be able to provide follow up critiques or manuscript evaluations.

Yes. I will happily consider suggestions for other presentations and subjects once I know this works for me and those signing up.

Updates on the Writer’s Zoom Room will be posted on my Facebook page. And if it does not work out, I will update you there.

Meanwhile, if you’d like an invite to the first presentation Reverse Outlining, drop me a note and you will hear from me when it’s time to register.

Book Give-Away

Needing a reason to write during these times of isolation and challenge?

I am giving away a copy of my book 101-and more-Writing Exercises to Get You Started and Keep You Going to the first 19 people who contact me.

Email me (with ‘Writing Excercise book’ in the subject line) and I will put a copy in the mailbox asap. To wherever in the world you might be.

When you’ve used it for a while, I’d love it if you’d send a an optional one-line review.

ALSO: nine people – selected at random – will also receive a copy of one of my kids’ books to share in person or virtually with a young reader in your life.

 If you’d like to suggest I send 101 Writing Exercises to a friend or fellow writer instead, I can do that.


“Were there handouts?”

Writers emerging from classes, courses, workshops and conferences are often asked, “Were there handouts?”

I know that presentations I have attended are always enhanced by something to take home and review. Whether it’s a list of recommended reading, inspiring or useful quotes, informational  tips and strategies, or a list of online resources to follow up on later, they are always helpful.

Many I have hung onto for years, and continue to refer back to.

I have started to post handouts used in current and recent workshops and presentations on the Adult Presentations page of my website here.

Anyone is welcome to use them in any way they like. But when possible, I do ask that you credit them to me and my website.

Deadlines, bloody deadlines


Deadlines. Actually, I am a fan of the things. Tell me, “Just send it when you’re ready,” or “Get it to us as soon as possible,” and I will be in a  right royal flap. “What do they mean by ‘ready’? I wonder. “How soon is soon.” “What is possible?”

So give me a date. And whether it’s a writing deadline, grant application, job application or medical test, I will be there.

But what I love even better are deadline extensions. Not the ones I request… I think I have done it once… but those that are granted to me, based on the amount of work the person at the other end is anticipating. And their need for me to hold off on adding my project to their To Do list just yet.

deadlines-crushing-personI like to feel I am being helpful by holding out for a couple of extra weeks.

Which is the case right now.

I took time off work and had scheduled the next ten days down to the last minute. Much of which would be spent on tracking down photos, documenting them, making a spreadsheet of source info, downloading images, and marking up the MS. to indicate where they might go. I also had to do a number of revisions based on the highly useful and insightful notes sent to me by the sensitivity reader, a senior researcher with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness who spent the past three weeks with the manuscript. 

I could have done it. I was fully prepared to hit Send on the whole kit and caboodle on Dec 30 to meet the publisher’s Jan 1 deadline.

But it turns out I now have a couple of extra weeks to play with. Time to dawdle a bit. Plan an unanticipated move that is coming up mid-Jan. Play hooky over the holidays for a few hours. Catch up with a few friends I have overlooked for the past year. Read a book or two.

I can breathe a little easier. 

That for me is the best gift of the season so far .



Step by step

This draft (numbered five, although there have been a number of sub-drafts, too) of my kids’ book on homelessness is nearly done.

But it’s not over yet.

In the next day or so I will be sending it off to a homelessness researcher at York University. She will serve as ‘sensitivity reader’ providing feedback on accuracy, pointing out what I might have ‘got wrong’ in writing about this topic, and I hope letting me know if there’s anything I have not covered that should be there.

I don’t know about how much she knows about writing for this age group. So along with the MS. I will be sending her a few notes about my goal of informing, eliciting empathy and addressing myths around homelessness, without overloading the readers with detail. But at the same time – at the publisher’s request – conveying the situation in the US as well as Canada.

Easey Peasey!


Photo: L. Peterson The owner of this cart sweeps the downtown streets to help local businesses, and in return is grateful for cash, coffee or a good meal.

While she is reading the book, I will be doing photo and image research. In some cases using images I have received from individuals and agencies. Others sourced from stock photo sites. And a few I have taken myself. These need be logged, and notes placed in the relevant area of the MS to indicate there they might go… about 40 of them!

Once the MS comes back from the sensitivity reader, I will have a couple of weeks to address any issues that she has pointed out, finish compiling the log and notations about images, and submitting it all to the editor by Jan 1.

Then the waiting to hear back about what will need changing, revising, editing, etc. will begin. Always a fraught time. “What if they hate it?”

All in all this nonfiction business is much more complex than writing fiction, in which I just sat around writing ‘whatever came into my head’.

But I have a real commitment and obligation to ‘get this right’. I want the book to be useful, to be accessible, and I hope it will be  a tool to change minds, illuminate an important social topic, and generate empathy in the reader… who I hope will share it with the adults around them, some of whom are sadly lacking the empathy department when faced by something they don’t understand.

What me? Panic?

I’m not really panicking. Honest.

Well, maybe just a bit.

I have just six days to finish a ‘good’ first draft of my non fiction book, so that DB can run through it with his red pencil while I am on my travels.

I am determined NOT to think about the project while I am in Turkey. But I am a bit concerned about how little time there is left before 11 p.m. next Wednesday. My ‘cut-off’ time. (After all, I do need a couple of hours to pack!)

I have been on a roller-coaster of doubt and panic over the past many months. Fiction was easy… kind of. I just had to somehow transfer the mess in my head to the page, then fix it up once it was there in front of me in black and while.

For this project, I have read numerous reports, scanned hundreds of news articles, studied websites and blog postings, sent  emails, juggled phone calls, done interviews, researched picture sources… and there will  be more of everything to do between this first draft and the next.

Some days I feel as if I am on top of it all. At other times, I am not even sure how to get to the point where I would be able to send the MS. to my editor.

 I am very afraid that I won’t be able to a) do justice to the very complex issue of homelessness, and to everyone who lives with it every day, or works to help people find a safe home, b) live up to the expectations of my publisher with whom I have published eight books, and c) do justice to my own need for achievement and perfection.

I can’t do this. I can do this. I can’t do this. You will do this. Maybe it would sound better set to music!

I know the best antidote to fear is action. In the same way I have learned that the best response to writers’ block is to actually write

So I am now going to quit moaning, publish this post, and get on with the job in hand. Because the one thing I have learned in the last few months is that if I am busy working, I can’t panic at the same time.

And as I have so many times before, I will follow the admonishment, “Leap, and the net will appear.”






Research #7: Why I quit Google Alerts (which seemed a very good idea at the time)

Every morning for the past few months I woke to find links to about 30-50 recent news articles that related in one way or another to homelessness.

If I didn’t get through them all in the morning – bookmarking some, printing out others, and trying to read through all the selected ones at least once – I tried to get through the rest of them in the late evening before bed.

I started and ended my day with lots of hard information – and harder news. And sometimes – surprisingly often – some good news, too.

(And in between, I was juggling the actual work on the book with my job at the shelter. )

Every day, all day was about homelessness.

But it started taking its toll. I dreaded turning on my computer first thing in the a.m. And found I was not sleeping well at night.

So I’ve quit. Not the job. Nor the book… as the deadline inches ever closer. But I have taken back control of what I read, download and absorb. (This on top of other materials and information that comes my way by other means.)

Now I do it on my time. With a break of some sort either before or after. 

I have cancelled the four alerts. Instead, every few days I very intentionally do a Google search, using one of three subject headings. I spend 45-minutes max. scrolling through, picking out the items that either reflect most closely the topic I am writing about or researching right now, or those that grab me because they offer something new I have not yet delved into.

Then I don’t do it again for another few days.

I have taken back control of what I read, download and absorb. And when.

Over the past three months there has been a lot of repetition in what Google Alerts have  thrown up. Homelessness resisters rally. Shelters get closed. Or open. People speak up. Businesses pitch in. Government set priorities. Researchers publish reports. Campers get moved on. Helpers step forward. Homeless people get fed, clothed, provided with medical attention, food, showers when they need it. Or not. People talk. Individuals tell their story. Or state their case. Children show compassion. Bureaucrats agonize or patronize. Funders provide money. Or withdraw it. Neighbours get up in arms. Or take up arms to help. People collect money. Videos get made. And panned or praised. Newspapers publish letters to the Editors…

I can’t get it all. I can’t read and absorb everything, and still have the energy to keep going.

I no longer dread opening my mail. Instead of being burdened by alerts, almost every day I am buoyed up by responses to my queries and requests. Yes. Please use our photos. Certainly, give me a call. Of course, I will connect you with the person you need to speak to. I am happy to forward that piece of information, study or contact info. Or you can find it here. Do let me know if you need anything more. Keep me posted. Keep going…

Google Alerts proved to be really useful, as long as I needed them

But I’m glad to be done with them, for now. So I can get on with my job, my book, and my life.

Working hard vs hardly working

Sometimes it’s just bloody hard work.

But that’s no reason to stop. 

I’d rather do something hard that was important to me, than drift on doing the easy stuff that just does not matter – to me or anyone else.

Even so. Sometimes this project is just bloody hard work. So I recall – once again – Anne Lamott’s story in her wonderful book Bird by Bird. 

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

And I take her father’s advice to heart.

These days, when I sit down to work I don’t tackle the whole thing at once. I pick a topic, a section, just one simple fact I need to research or write about. And I ‘just get on with it,’ as my own mother might have suggested. 

(Building the book will come later, once I’ve had a chance to review all its various parts and figure out the best spot for each one.)

So today I’m reading up on street newspapers. 

There are more than 100 worldwide, I learned from the International Network of Street Papers’ website. The first one documented was in New York in 1989. But others in other cities may well have started earlier.

Street newspapers usually serve three purposes.

  1. The provide a small income for the sellers who buy them from the publisher at cost, and sell them at a small profit.
    (In the case of the Vancouver publication Megaphone, sellers pay 75 cents a copy and sell them for $2.00. Most of them working regular patches somewhere in the city, where their customer get to know them, and they get to know many of their customers.)
  2. They offer a voice for low-income and homeless people who get to contribute writing and artwork that documents and explores their own lives.
  3. The publications themselves serve to share information about homelessness and poverty-related issues, and advocate for change.

So today I read a few pages of research, wrote a few hundred words, contacted three street newspaper publishers and associations for pics, and in the process set one bird free. 

Excuse me now. I’ve got to fly.


Research #6: Finding my way through the maze

Working on a topic as challenging as homelessness means I often get overwhelmed by both the complexity of the issue, and the need to distill it down into concepts and language that are easily understood by young readers.

My process so far has been to read and study the specific topic I am focussing on, commit to the page anything and everything that I think I need to include, then back up and edit that section or passage for clarity. At that point I also identify information that I still need, subjects that will need a graphic or photo, and any primary research I still need to do – and the people or organizations I might need to contact – to ensure I have a full picture of the issue.

I have also done some research into strategies and systems for researching and writing nonfiction. Perhaps the most useful has been an article called How to Simplify Complex Ideas by Henneke, on the Enchanted Marketing Website. Although the article is intended for authors of blogs, it’s applicable to non fiction in general.

In short, Henneke’s five steps are:

  1. Ask the right questions – and make each one small enough to answer in 1,000 words.
  2. Reduce the clutter
  3. Rewrite and rewrite again
  4. Organize
  5. Draw Pictures

As my book is built around the ‘Five W’s and How’ of the issue, I found myself halfway there to framing research questions that helped me delve into the causes, affects and responses to homelessness. (I have consciously decided to avoided using the word ‘solutions’, using ‘responses’ instead – as sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Even if the intent is there.)  

Henneke’s first guideline has really helped me drill down into each specific topic, thereby reducing the clutter and the amount of time I spend lost in the maze of information, stats and opinion.

Photo: The maze of Horta, Barcelona. By Carlos Lorenza

Research #5 – KIS(S) Keeping it Simple


After spending an hour trying to come up with a kid-friendly description of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I did a random online search for ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy for Kids’ and came across a useful article on Wiki Kids Search.

Snip20190508_39I often suggest that writers use kids’ non fiction book as a launching point for research on difficult or complex topics, but had not discovered this online tool before.

Lists of library online databases (which I consider are the most under-used and under-appreciated of any public library resource) usually include several for kids, useful for homework and general research. And I’ve often them found them invaluable in the past.

But the Wiki Kids Search gave me what I needed this time.

I did not spend too much time checking out other topics. But did come away with some useful information expressed in an easily-digestible way for my current project. And will add this to my resource list for future research use.


Finding a balance

The topic of homelessness is a big one. And whatever reading and I research I do reveals it to be more intractible and pervasive than I could ever imagined. Even though I work ‘in the business’.

But I am learning lots, and in the process discovering just how much I can take in one day, and still come out on the side of thinking that people living in precarious situations can find solutions to their problems.

And that I can develop the tone and establish the boundaries for what I need to share in the book.

I’ve now implemented a bit of a schedule so I can manage both my work and my emotions.

1. In any given week I alternate research and writing about the complexities of the issue, with a close look at all the good that organizations and individuals are doing.
Today I learned about Netherlands inventor’s Bas Timmer’s ‘Sheltersuit’ – which has already been distributed to 6,000 homeless people in the Netherlands and Europe, and asylum seekers in Sarajevo and Greece.

2. The issue of homelessness is huge in my community of Nanaimo. And there are many social network platforms where this – and other social issues – are heatedly discussed. I’ve withdrawn from all the groups which attract the most vitriol and negative thinking about the causes and conditions of homelessness, and those affected by it.

Being exposed to such mean spiritedness does nothing to help me frame the subject in a  way that meets my goals of ‘providing information, challenging attitudes and encouraging empathy’.

(Although the ‘Myth Buster ‘sidebars in the book will address a number of common misconceptions I hear voiced over and over again.)

3. I alternate work sessions with other non-book related activities. Starting with a ninety-minute work session early in the morning, another ninety minutes in late morning or early afternoon, then again in the evening. In between I do some work, (also homelessness-related, but very specific work that makes a difference in 30 shelter guests’ lives every day), read a book, do an errand, take a walk, make a meal…

34. When I’m out and about in the community I do the one thing I recommend everyone try once in a while. Connect with someone on the street – with a smile, a quick conversation, a small donation. 

Many people who live on the street say that the human interaction is just as important to them as whatever donations of cash or food they might receive.

Research #4 – Those ‘aha’ moments

Most days I start work by scanning 10 to 30 links thrown up by three different Google Alerts that I’ve established. All have to do one way or another with the children’s nonfiction book on homelessness that I’m working on.

Some days it’s depressing work. So many communities struggling in so many ways with so many issues related to the problem. Growing numbers of unsheltered and unhoused people. More and more evidence of the impact of addictions and compromised mental health. So many individuals and neighbourhoods opposing efforts to create more shelter beds, more services and supports.

The scope of my research covers all of N. America. So every day there are a lot of links to follow, articles to read, and determinations to be made about if/how what I’ve just learned relates to my book.

And if it does, how to archive it and track it so I can find it when I need it.

Some days it can be hard going.


Photo: Readers Digest

But I’d estimate that for every five ‘bad news’ stories, there is at least one good one. One of the  most heartening elements of  my research is just how many individuals and organizations are coming up with innovative and effective ways of supporting homeless people. Like this one. Nine-year-old year-old Californian Khloe Thompson was so affected by the homeless women she encountered in her neighbourhood, that she set up a charity called Khloe Kares. So far she has raised over $10,000, some of which has gone towards making homemade bags which she fills with toiletries and other sundries to distribute in her community.

Another bonus to this kind of scattershot research is that it also throws up information that might not directly relate to my subject, but is compelling enough to take note of, and get back to.

Today a CBC news post alerted me for the first time to Metis road allowance settlement. When Metis people were deprived of their homes through the ‘scrip’ program, many settled in the ten-foot road allowance proscribed by the Northern Land Survey, alongside roads and railways lines. 

This led me to check into the subject further through the Indigenous Peoples of Canada website

At first glimpse, I was not sure how and if I could use this information, fascinating – and chilling – as it is. But then I thought of the connection of our modern-day tent cities to the shantytowns of the Depression, and how actions of – or inaction by – governments and bureaucracies often lead people to find their own solutions and create their own communities.

Research #3: Keeping track of online sources


From the beginning of this project – when it was still a tiny germ in my mind – I knew that one of the most important things I needed to do was keep track of all my sources of online information.

It’s not enough to create bookmarks of websites, blogs, database articles, etc. Online material changes, it may get deleted or moved. I therefore keep a Research Master File, using either a Word table or Excel spreadsheet.

For every piece of info. I find online that might be useful, I note:

  1. The title of the article, paper or file and the author name.
    In this way, if worst comes to worst, I can probably track it down again later with just this information.
  2. The name of the website and its url.
    Both is better than just one or another. 
  3. The date I last accessed it.
    This is important. One of the last things I do before I submit a piece of work that is based on online research is check all those links again so I know whether they are current and I can rely on them for fact checking or for including in the body of the final work.
  4. A few notes about the most important content and how and where I think I might use it.
    It’s quite likely that I find something that I think might be useful at one point, but weeks later forget all together a) what I was looking for when I found it or b) why I thought it might be useful.
  5. The name of the hardcopy folder when I’ve saved a printed copy of the article or page*.
  6. A column, left blank at this point, where I can later note where this information is used (chapter and/or page#) in the final  MS .

I know this creates a lot of paper, but I then *print out a copy of the website page or article, date it, and file it in the appropriate hardcopy folder. This may seem unnecessary duplication and a waste of paper, but sometimes it’s quicker just to grab the hardcopy to review rather than to go back to the source, and I need to have a copy in case the electronically archived/bookmarked material disappears.

Lastly, I create an electronic bookmark, saved in a named folder, so I can find the source material again if I need it without resorting to the Research Master File or my hard copies.

(I do also from time to time print out a copy of the list all the bookmarks for this project, which I will admit might be ‘surplus to requirement’).

Sounds like a lot of work, and perhaps OTT organization. But I find that starting out by developing processes for documenting and archiving research sources and content saves me the time and effort of having to make it up as I go along.


Research # 2 – Mining Wikipedia for facts

Not everyone knows that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is a collaborative – and not wholly authoritative – endeavour. Almost anyone and everyone can contribute and edit articles. Which means that not everything you may find there is definitive or accurate.

But I certainly don’t overlook it as a source for research information.

Rather, I use the footnotes and references at the bottom of any article of interest to use as leads for attributed information I might find useful.

For the purposes of this post, I randomly selected the topic of Pasty. The article is obviously written by someone with a fondness for the traditional Cornish takeout food, and quite a bit of knowledge.

My grandmother’s pasties set the bar high for any I’ve eaten since, and I like to think of myself as the pasty expert, based not only on the number of the meat and potato-filled pastries I’ve eaten, but also on the ‘facts’ I hold to be true. For example, that their crust is intended for thick miners’ hands, the men who carried them underground for their lunch, after which the ‘carrying handle’ could be discarded. And that the only proper ingredients are potato, swede, beef and onions at one end, apple and raisins at the other – despite what the ubiquitous mass-produced Cornish pasty manufacturers (many of whose products are all made across the River Tamar in England) may suggest by their brie and apple, or sausage and cranberry offerings.


Cornish Pasty

But instead of digging too deeply into the article to see what the author had got right or wrong, I scrolled down to the References at the bottom of the page. All 73 of them. Plus links to four books and two other websites.

This is where I am most likely to find useful resources, the origins of which can be followed, explored, evaluated, attributed and footnoted if I ever want to publish a treatise on the issue, and have my work stand up to the scrutiny of a fact checker.

So while Wikipedia is not at the top of the list of sources for secondary or tertiary research, it’s a useful place to check out if you need to know who already knows more about your topic than you do. 

Miners enjoying their Cornish pasty lunch.

Research #1 – Google Alerts


I’m going to be spending the next year deep in research of all kinds for a project that will shortly be announced.

Until then, I have created a number of Google alerts, using four variations of search terms. Which means every morning I receive four emails with between four dozen and 100 links to various articles and references to my subject.

Right now I spend about an hour every morning browsing through them. The ones I think might be useful, I bookmark. Soon I will have to schedule a good hunk of time each week to review each saved item, determine if I will need the information and how I will use, and archive the material I plan to use.

What I love most about research, even these Google-generated items, are the surprises that leap out at me. Referring me to something I had not thought of being associated with my topic. Links to great work being done by wonderful people. Trivia and miscellanea.

The secret will be figuring out what I need, what is too much, and when enough is enough.