How did you write that, Audrey Levatino?

Audrey Levatino knows what she’s talking about when it comes to farming and writing. She owns a 23-acre farm in Virginia, and with her husband, Michael, is the author of The Joy of Hobby FarmingHer new book, Woman-Powered Farm: Manual for a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle from Homestead to Field, is a practical and detailed look at exactly what it takes to run a profitable homestead. Recently I asked her about her writing process; here are her answers.

Audrey-LevatinoHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Woman-Powered Farm?

Audrey: A couple of things got me thinking about writing a resource specifically about and for women who want to farm. I got such a positive response to The Joy of Hobby Farming, a book my husband and I wrote, published in 2011, and much of the time it was women coming up to me at the farmer’s market or at events and saying how much they would like to do what I am doing. Also, as I grew more involved with other farmers in my community, I naturally formed relationships with the women, and was so impressed with all they were doing, and so interested in their stories and how they managed their farms. It seemed like the universe was having the same thoughts because around this same time I saw and read many articles about women being involved in farming and I realized that this is an important and relevant topic that could use more exploration. As I began to explore the idea, I realized that there wasn’t a book out there that addressed the unique concerns, approaches, and stories of women involved in farming.

Woman-Powered-FarmHDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Audrey: I wanted to include as much information as I could from women who are currently farming, so I sent questions out to women farmers around the country to collect their stories and information about themselves and their farms. As well as including current trends in women farmers and farming, I wanted to include information on the history of women and farming so I did a lot of reading on these topics. I felt it was important to recognize that, as women farmers, we owe much to the hard work and experience of those who carved out the path of farming, providing us with a viable and interesting career option today.

I also thought back to when I first began to farm and what information I would have liked to have that I wasn’t able to find at the time, which is why I included the step-by-step how-to sections with pictures of tasks which can be intimidating simply because you’ve never learned how to do them before (i.e., using a chain saw).

Because there are so many different ways to farm, and different things to farm, I visited the farms of local women farmers and interviewed them for profiles in the book.

In order to provide the step-by-step instructions, I persuaded my husband to take pictures of me doing my chores around the farm.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Audrey: Writing up the proposal for the book really helped me to organize my thoughts and ideas into a coherent form. I drafted the table of contents using the proposal as a guide. I always work from an outline, so I grouped the information I wanted to cover into topics for each chapter and tried to find the most logical progression of ideas.

I use bookmark folders to keep track of my internet resources. My book and print resources can get rather chaotic—lots of piles with sticky notes flagging specific pages.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Audrey: Once the book was accepted for publication, I had to get serious about organizing my time. I think most clearly in the morning, so it is the best time for me to research and write, but the morning is also when I need to be outside working on my own farm. Most of the work on a cut flower farm has to take place during the coolest time of the day. So throughout the whole process I always felt that I was not giving enough to time to either the book or my farm. I just couldn’t sit down and focus on the writing while knowing there was all that work to be done outside. It was pretty stressful. So, most of the actual writing took place after my growing season ended in October.

I really enjoy researching and can lose myself in reading and searching for things online. To write I have to designate a time and make myself sit down and do it. Sometimes it goes well and other times it is simply painful. As for promotion, I know I have to do it, so I pretty much just do what my publicist asks me to do. I can get very excited talking about my book in a casual way to people who are already interested.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Audrey: I tend to write in a stream of consciousness manner, so I love the cut and paste functions of word processing. I revise sentences and paragraphs many times. Cutting and pasting allows me to retain the ideas and thoughts that come out in scraps so that I can develop them further when I need them.

Bonus question: Could you walk us through the process of deciding to direct this book to a female audience?

Audrey: Mostly I decided to direct the book to women because it was a need that had not yet been met. That’s an important guide to choosing a topic. There may be many books on farming, but there are still subjects and points of view that have not been addressed.

When I first started out, I read all the books on farming and gardening. There are many wonderful books out there that I still reference today. But once I got into doing the farmer’s market and getting to know other farmers, I realized that most of the small farmers I know are women. And all the farmers I know that use interns or part-time help on their farms were telling me that 80-90% of their workers were women.

At the same time, farming has traditionally been a bit of a good-ol-boy club and I heard stories about challenges other women had in breaking into this club. I realized that none of the books I had read or used over the years addressed farming from a woman’s perspective. Our bodies are built differently, so the physical challenges are unique. Also, without stereotyping too much, women are generally more nurturing and care for their animals as if they were their own children. And I realized that women have always been the growers and the caretakers. It’s only in recent history with the invention of mechanized farming that women fled (or were pushed out of) farming for other pursuits. So I wanted to give women a book with a familiar voice and information that spoke directly to them in order to provide them with some confidence to get back into farming. It’s easier to imagine yourself operating a chainsaw if the instructions and the step-by-step photos are of women just like yourself.


How did you write that, Catherine Reef?

Frida-Diego-coverCatherine Reef writes award-winning biographies for young people. On her website she says, “I have so many ideas for books that I want to write, and I get most excited by what’s next. This is because I truly love my work.” A perfect subject for How Did You Write That, wouldn’t you agree? Here’s what she had to say about her latest book, Frida & Diego:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Frida & Diego?

Catherine: I like to write about creative people. I had written biographies of poets, novelists, and composers — of E. E. Cummings, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ernest Hemingway, Leonard Bernstein, and others — but I had never written about a visual artist. And after completing my books on Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, I wanted to move away from England and the nineteenth century, to enjoy a change of scene. I considering several subjects before settling on Frida Kahlo. She was such a colorful figure, in every sense of the word, and she was a pioneering self-portraitist.

Catherine-Reef-June-2014-240x300As I delved into Kahlo’s story, though, I became equally intrigued by her husband. Diego Rivera was larger than life-again, in every sense. He, too, was a significant artist, one of the most important muralists of the twentieth century. I also saw how tightly intertwined their stories were and how tumultuous their marriage was. Their intense love drew them together, drove them apart, and brought them together again. It didn’t always make them happy. But here is what fascinated me, and what I admired most about the pair: however much each one hurt and disappointed the other in love, they remained true to each other as artists. Rivera appreciated Kahlo’s talent, encouraged her, and championed her work, and she did the same for him. This was the beautiful story I wanted to tell.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Catherine: I began this project as I begin every book, with lots of reading, searching, and thinking. I needed to get a sense of the shape of the story I would be telling, which in this case was a complex one, rather like a double helix, with two life stories joined and twisted together. I started mentally pairing pictures with unwritten text, because it helps me to have an image of the finished book in mind as I work, even though it is bound to evolve. I also thought hard about how to enter my story. Would I simply start at the beginning, or would I write a brief opening chapter that introduced my subjects at a key point in their story, thus giving my readers some background that would be helpful as they moved into the book? In this case I settled on the latter approach. My readers encounter the two artists on a fateful day in 1928 when a very young Kahlo asks the established artist Rivera to look at her early paintings. Although the book would move back in time to explore their lives before this moment, this was when their combined story began.

Once I had done this preliminary work, I wrote a sample chapter. I am a very organized thinker, but it is in my nature to balk against regimentation on paper or in life. So I prepared a loosely structured outline of the rest of the book. This chapter and outline, along with a detailed cover letter, constituted the proposal. My editor and I had discussed this project, so she knew the proposal was coming. The chapter and outline were helpful to both of us, as they gave us something concrete to work from.

HDYWT: How did you organize your research?

Catherine: I am not someone who can write anywhere, and this is because of the way I organize and use my research. If I wanted to get work done at a writers’ retreat or coffee shop, or even in my backyard, I would have to lug along my laptop, a stack of folders and papers, and another stack of books, minimum — and then hope I hadn’t forgotten anything!

I organize my research notes roughly chronologically, and I place them in folders according to the way I plan to break my story into chapters. In another folder I stash images I have come across in my research that I may want to track down later, when I start choosing illustrations. In my office, arrayed behind me, are books I will need to pick up for quick reference and fact checking as I work. And within reach are some old friends: my trusty thesaurus, a world atlas, and several well-worn dictionaries.

Does it all look organized? Maybe not, but my system works for me.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Catherine: On a day devoted to research you will likely find me in a library or archive, examining primary sources. Too many times I have discovered inaccuracies in secondary sources: authors who present as fact material they haven’t bothered to check, quotes that turn out to have been fabricated or altered substantially from the original — I could give you a host of examples. Also, seeking out original sources leads to exciting surprises, from details other researchers have overlooked to opportunities to correct the historical record, if only in a small way. I’m always on the lookout for unpublished images as well.

A day of writing (and most days are writing days) is a quiet day at home. I spend many hours at my desk, but my day is hardly free of interruptions: chats with my husband, walks with our dog, or laundry and other chores that need my attention. Despite the fact that daily life draws me away from it, the writing gets done.

I like to promote my work is by speaking to others about it at conferences and other events, or through interviews. I have long been a student of literature and prose style, and I enjoy speaking to readers and writers of all ages about my books and about the craft of nonfiction, especially biography; I have a great deal to offer. But, truthfully, I’m convinced that the best way to promote my work is to do it, to make each book the best it can be.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Catherine: I live within commuting distance of the Library of Congress, which is an invaluable resource. Two or three times a month I spend a day there looking at manuscripts, rare books, prints and photographs, films, newspapers and periodicals, and other materials I might not find elsewhere. While researching Frida & Diego, for example, I was able to locate in the library’s collection the Venezuelan newspaper that printed the eulogy delivered by Andrés Iduarte at Kahlo’s funeral, and to read it in its entirety. I tracked down as well articles from the Mexican press and obscure Latin American and European books that clarified or expanded on what I had learned elsewhere.

I honestly never know what I will encounter in the library’s collections: old photographs with notes penciled on their backs in Walt Whitman’s hand; A. Philip Randolph’s unpublished memoir of his early years; the rare first edition of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, which was printed in series form; a photo album that was snatched from Adolf Hitler’s bookshelves at the close of World War II; affectionate correspondence between Leonard Bernstein and his friend Aaron Copland. I can’t imagine how I could live anywhere else and do the work I do!

Bonus question: What are the differences between writing for adults and writing for young readers?

Catherine: We writers all think about our audience. We consider what our readers are likely to know, or not know; what will interest them; what questions they might ask us, if they could. Addressing these concerns as a writer for young readers means that I may devote more space, proportionally, to historical background or cultural context than I would if writing for adults. I cannot assume, for example, that my audience is familiar with such terms as surrealism and cubism; that they knew who Stalin and the Rockefellers were; or that they have read about the rise of communism in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The challenge then is to weave this information into the narrative so that it becomes part of the story I am telling. I consider children’s and young adult nonfiction to be an art form. A nonfiction book to me is a work of literary art, and a biography is a portrait in words. So the last thing I want is for the portrait I have been so carefully creating to fade while I digress for too many informational paragraphs.

My books are heavily illustrated with photographs and historical prints. Illustrations are helpful to young readers who may feel discouraged at the sight of too many pages of unbroken text. More significantly, though, illustrations enrich the story I am telling. Through carefully chosen images and their captions I can present aspects of history that go beyond the scope of the narrative, or I can reveal another side to a biographical subject.

In closing I will say that I feel fortunate to write for young readers. There is no more important audience for literature than our young people, and they deserve the best books we can give them. I do my best for them every single day.

P. S.: Catherine’s next book Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is coming in August 2015. Be on the lookout!



How did you write that, Katrin Schumann?

katrinKatrin Schumann is a busy book doctor, editor, writer, and teacher. Her most recent book is The Secret Power of Middle Children, co-authored with Dr. Catherine Salmon.

For the expert, co-authorship is a powerful way to get one’s ideas heard. But what’s it like from the other side? How does the expert find a co-author, and what is the co-author expected to bring to the collaboration?

In this interview, you’ll learn

  • Katrin’s tips for staying organized and on-time
  • what you need to bring to a book partnership
  • the necessary requirement for succeeding in traditional publishing

secretHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Secret Power of Middle Children?

Katrin: My agent approached me with the idea. She was working with a birth order expert on putting together a proposal and they were having trouble finding the right voice and organizing the manuscript. I was immediately interested because I have three children and was intrigued by the notion that the middle is overlooked and underestimated.

Also, I felt I could bring something valuable to the table as I had done a lot of parenting research and surveys for my first book. My co-author was an academic expert with no experience in the field, so to speak (she is not a parent). I far prefer collaborations in which I can explore my own ideas and insights. When I am committed to the core idea of the book, the process of planning, researching and writing is exciting for me. Finally, I loved the idea that this book is the first of its kind.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Katrin: I started by writing a proposal, which was harder than I expected. We knew what the book was going to be about, but we hadn’t quite figured out the angle or the hook. It took a few iterations and some major rewrites of the first chapter to figure out both the hook and the overall structure.

This is where the agent and I really worked well together, and where you must be willing to shift and refine your ideas if you want to succeed with traditional publishing. I believe in hammering out a succinct and solid proposal—it will impress editors (we went to auction on the basis of the proposal) and it later provides a well-thought out plan for writing the book.

It was only after writing and selling the proposal that I flew out to L.A. to meet my co-author, go through all her research, and discuss the finer details of each chapter. I didn’t necessarily have to do this, but I figured if we’d be working together for a year and eventually doing publicity together, knowing her personally would be helpful.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Katrin: I am a big fan of visual aids, which means I tend not to rely much on technology. I take notes on college-lined spiral bound notebooks (of which I now have dozens). I write on only one side of the paper so that I can scribble additional information (quotes, anecdotes, research, questions) on the facing page later as I begin the process of writing the book.

I use Dropbox for sharing material and I create bookmark folders for each chapter. I have a whiteboard, which I use to write down my to-do’s and map out each day. I also use a corkboard to tack up chapter titles, images, reminders etc.

An important thing I do immediately is work out my deadlines: when is the book due and how much do I need to write per week? As I’m usually working on more than one project at a time and often collaborating with other people, this is critical. I am meticulous about staying on schedule as it keeps stress levels in check for all concerned.

One aspect of this work that I have improved over the years is gathering references together for all the research in the book. I used to be sloppy about this and have learned the hard way that it pays to be more organized.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Katrin: My schedule has varied a lot over the years because of my responsibilities running a household and taking care of my children. I used to hire babysitters and work about six hours a day—but those hours were sporadic. Now that my children are older and drive themselves or take a bus to school, I have a lot more freedom.

Typically, I am at my desk at 7:30am. I have a small office outside the home now as my husband began working from home and having him interrupt me was making writing tortuous. I like to work in an attractive environment (i.e., I like to be surrounded by beautiful colors and plants and artwork). This might be because I work with intense focus and rarely get up to eat or walk around. I average about ten hours a day when I’m in the office, and I love it. I’m trying to be better about taking breaks and doing things like exercising. Whenever I teach in Boston or am doing interviews or traveling, my days are much shorter.

Promotion is quite different. I try to clear my schedule for a few months so I can engage in promotion without going crazy. I have to be ready at the drop of a hat. I make sure I have appropriate clothing at hand, and notes in various formats so I’m ready for TV and radio, as well as print and online media. This part of my work is incredibly time consuming but also quite a thrill.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Katrin: I actually think my favorite tool is the one I use the least, which is indulging in something that is pure fun. Invariably, when I go to a museum and see a gorgeous painting, make time to go to another writer’s reading, hang out with my kids, watch a great show on TV or lounge around reading the New Yorker or People magazine, an idea pops into my head that later helps me with my work. It seems I am always thinking about writing in one way or another, even when I’m not aware of it.

Bonus question: What’s your advice to someone who is thinking of co-writing a book with a subject matter expert?

Katrin: Leave your ego at the door. Always be professional and timely, not obsequious, authoritative but not bossy. Hammer out timing details early on and make sure each person knows exactly what he or she is responsible for. Never send an e-mail when you are frustrated; wait a few hours. Be upfront about everything, including your limitations, interests, talents, ideas and concerns. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong and don’t insist on recognition if you’re right.

Stay focused on your goals. Ideally, bring energy and insight to the project rather than relying solely on the expert. Before you launch into the publicity phase, recognize that the expert may have different goals than you do. This will help avoid disappointment and allow you to enjoy the experience more.