Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Interview with Laurie Calhoven -- PART VI Discovering America's Past

Dear Reader,

Thank you for joining Laurie and me for this informative interview about the writing and research of her books, Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, and her hot-off-the-press, Will at the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863.  Teachers, writers, librarians, and readers young and old will discover history coming to life for them in the pages of Laurie's books. They are especially good picks for reluctant readers, as well as filling an important gap in textbooks. Visit Laurie's website:

Laurie just returned from hosting an American Girl tea party at the University of Arizona Bookstore and speaking on a panel about Boys of Wartime at the Tucson Festival of Books.

Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776: Twelve-year old Daniel watches as Redcoat soldiers close the harbor and march through the streets The British have sworn to uphold the king's law . . . and to punish the rebels of Boston. But Daniel knows those rebels: they are Patriots. His heroes have vowed to fight for freedom, whatever the cost. And Daniel is determined to help. Check out the Boys of Wartime page for more info.


1. Can you tell us something about the historical fiction series you're writing for middle grade readers? What was the catalyst for this series?

I got the idea for the first book, Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, while I was researching a biography of George Washington. If I learned about the siege in school, I had forgotten all about it. It’s a key event in the American Revolution—beginning at the end of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and ending a year later. It was during that year that we declared independence and the various colonial militias came together as an army under Washington. What I really wondered about was what life was like for the people of Boston during that year, and I wanted to find out more. The next thing I knew, a boy name Daniel started telling me about his secret spy work for General Washington.
I didn’t have time to put anything down on paper, but I mentioned my idea to Mark McVeigh at Dutton. He asked me to put together a proposal for that book and three more—each one set in a different war, and the series was born. Book two, Will at the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 was just published. The third book, set in World War Two France, will follow in 2012.

2. What were some of the challenges you encountered when researching and/or writing in the different time periods—1776,1863, and 1943.

The biggest challenge in researching all three time periods was finding out about regular people. Historians focus on the movement of armies and the lives of generals. I’m more interested in the regular folks–the Patriot boy who is stuck in Boston surrounded by enemy soldiers, the boy who finds himself in the middle of two armies in a small town in Pennsylvania, or a boy who takes on the dangerous job of leading Allied airmen across France. It’s harder to find out about who those boys might have been. It takes some digging, and a lot of imagination.
3. Was there any particular reason that you chose to write about specific battles or time periods?

The Siege of Boston captured my attention immediately. When it came to the Civil War, I was kind of a blank slate. I started out with very broad histories of the war. The Battle of Gettysburg was a key turning point, so it seemed like a good battle to hone in on. It didn’t hurt that Gettysburg isn’t too far from my home in New York City. A lot of the Civil War buildings are still standing. I was able to walk the streets of the town, poke my fingers into bullet holes, and stand under the shade of trees that witnessed the battle.

I approached World War Two the same way – with very broad research into the French Resistance. American and British airmen who were shot down used secret escape routes organized by Dutch, Belgian, and French Resistance units to make their way across France, into Spain, and finally in British hands in Gibraltar. Once I read about those secret Underground Railroads, I knew I had my story. The year 1943 was their most active. It was also the year in which the Gestapo was most ferocious in trying to track them down. So that’s when I set my story.

4. How did you find your emotional connection to the historical material and to each of the protagonists—Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776 and Will at the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863?

Up until now I’ve been talking about history and war, but each book begins with a character—a boy who wants to make some kind of a difference in the big, world events going on around him, and who has some kind of inner journey to make at the same time. I’m rooting for my characters. I want them to succeed even when I’m throwing every obstacle I can think of in their paths. I grow to love them over the course of each book to the point where it’s hard to say goodbye.

I’m thinking about that boy the whole time I’m doing my research, waiting for him to tell me who he is and what he wants. I always panic, thinking I’m not going to get there. But at some point in my research an idea for an opening scene comes to me. And that opening scene tells me a lot about who my character is.

Daniel opens with a staring contest, one that he loses. It’s a metaphor for the entire siege, which is like a staring match between the two armies. But Daniel is also afraid in that first scene, and he has to learn how to act in the fact of that fear.

In the opening scene of Will, Will is daydreaming about the glory he’s going to win in battle—if only his parents would let him be a drummer boy. It was interesting for me to find out what he would do when he was face-to-face with a real enemy.

5. Can you offer readers any research tips or insights into your writing process?

I spent a lot of time learning about who my characters are through meditations and freewriting exercises. That’s how I learned what Will keeps in his treasure box, and that his father was involved in the Underground Railroad. I do those meditations for all of my characters. Sometimes it feels tedious, but it’s worth it in the end.

I’m also do very broad outlines before I begin. I have to know what my opening scene and my climax are going to be before I put words on paper. I usually know what the other major plot points are as well. I’m open to letting things change along the way, and often they do. I have to have some idea of where I’m going, or I flounder.

6. What or whom were the early influences that inspired you to become a writer? When did you know that you wanted to write for children?

I always loved books and reading. The first thing I wanted to be was a librarian, because I wanted to be surrounded by books. Then I learned that real people wrote those books, and I wanted to be one of them. I majored in journalism in college, went to work in book publishing, and promised myself I would write “one day.”

Twenty years later, I realized that one day wasn’t going to come along by magic. I had to make it happen. I started writing every morning before I went to work. It surprised me that all of my ideas were best suited to children’s books—I expected to write the Great American Novel. But I went with it. I switched my career from adult publishing to children’s publishing, read a huge number of books, took some classes, and kept writing.

7. I believe that you worked in publishing as well as being a writer. Can you share about your writing background and the different kinds of writing and publishing in which you were involved?

I spent most of my career working for Book-of-the-Month Club. I helped select books for the club, negotiated for book club rights, and helped plan the catalogs. I mostly worked on the main, general interest club. When I started writing, I was Editorial Director of a personal finance and investing book club. Then I talked BOMC into letting me start the Teen People Book Club. It was the most fun I ever had in the corporate world, but it wasn’t a financial success. I later went to the Scholastic Book Clubs, where I probably read a book a day and saw first hand what books kids and teachers wanted in their own libraries. It was a great learning experience.

8. What was your favorite book as a child?

I had lots of favorites. I remember loving Dr. Seuss and the Wizard of Oz before I could read. The Bobbsey Twins series and Nancy Drew followed. I read every Marilyn Sachs book in my school library, and all the Little House novels. One series I read over and over again was the Borrowers by Mary Norton. I still read them every couple of years. I love the world she created. I sat by a heating duct for hours, convinced that I had my very own family of Borrowers living in my house. I never spied them, much to my disappointment.

9. Can you share anything about the next book in the series? Is there anything else you'd like to add about the series and the books?

I think the World War Two book, currently titled Michael at the Invasion of France, 1943 is my best book yet. The story itself is less familiar to American readers, and I think I’ve grown as a writer. But I always think the last book I wrote is the best.

My editor and I are trying to decide what the next book will be. I was originally going to set a book in World War One, but we decided against that. So I’m mulling over the War of 1812 at the moment. I’m doing a lot of reading, and waiting for a character to start whispering in my ear. I wish he would hurry!

 Learn about Laurie and her books on her  web-site: 
A teaching guide is available for download of Daniel and the Siege of Boston, 1776, and a guide is coming soon for Will at the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. Check out the Boys of Wartime page for more info.
Laurie has generously donated an autographed copy of each of these titles! Simply leave a comment for a chance to win. Tell us your favorite series from American Historical Fiction or your favorite time period in American history. We love to get comments!We'll be back next week to announce the lucky **WINNERS**  Thank you, dear readers, for joining us! WELCOME member #100 and thank YOU--you know who you are!


  1. I love your putting your finger in the bullet holes at Gettysburg. And waiting for the character to whisper in your ear. Another great interview, Laurie!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Claudia! I agree that there is something about those bullet holes that really connects a writer to her story! Wonderful when the character whispers in your ear!

  3. Laurie and Clara,
    This interview was very interesting. I like the description of Daniel's staring match as a metaphor for the entire siege. That's the sort of far-reaching metaphor I can rarely pull off. I would love to hear more about how you do your meditations about your characters.


  4. Hi Pat, Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Laurie's meditations do sound intriguing, don't they?

  5. Hi Clara and Laurie,
    " I want them to succeed even when I’m throwing every obstacle I can think of in their paths." I liked this description of how you feel about your characters, and yet what you do to them! I,also, would love to hear about your meditations. Thank you for sharing!
    Lorrie Ziemba

  6. Lorrie, Thanks so much for stopping by. Let's see if we can round up more writers interested in the meditations, and maybe we can get Laurie to write about them for us.

  7. I just loved this interview. I learned a lot! She is a very talented writer. I hope some day to improve enough to write manuscripts like these.I like all of these time periods, I just love American history.

  8. I love books about the American Civil War. For some reason, I find that time of history fascinating. Maybe because it is so hard to believe that a country can actually fight against itself. Thanks for the informative posts/interviews on historical fiction.


  9. Hi Janet, Thank you for stopping by to leave a comment! I'm glad you were inspired by the interview with Laurie!

  10. Hi Margo, I loved your blog feature this week about WWII,and about your own writing project set during the Civil War. Thanks for dropping by here to leave a comment!

  11. Thanks for the interest in my mediations. I'm putting together a workshop and would love to present it at SCBWI retreats. The meditations themselves are pretty simple -- I relax, breathe deeply, and envision my character coming near me and eventually taking over.

    Then I turn over a card on my desk and freewrite to prompts like -- who named your character and how does he/she feel about the name? Your character is having a strong memory involving a parent--what is it? Your character can't sleep because he's obsessing about something -- what?

    The element of surprise is important, so the prompts are face down. The first few are based on the Stanislavsky acting method, and I've added more over the years -- like what's in your characters treasure box?

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your meditations with us, Laurie! Just in case some of the readers don't see it, I'll post your response again next week when the WINNERS of your books are announced!

  13. What a great interview! I wish I'd had books like these to read when I was young; I might have found history more interesting then. Instead, I didn't have any interest until I discovered Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series a few years ago. I would love these for my sons.

    Congratulations on reaching 100, Clara!! :)

  14. Thanks for your good wishes, Alison! I'm delighted that you enjoyed the interview with Laurie. Your name (number) goes in to for a chance to win the books!

  15. Hi,my favorite time in history was WW2 there so many interesting things to learn about it.

  16. Thanks for stopping by, Mallory! If you like the WWII time period, you'll have to watch for Laurie's new book set during WWII that's coming in 2012. My next guest author writes about that same time period, so stay tuned!

  17. Hey Laurie:

    I'd be interested in those meditation exercises for your characters. Could you perhaps do another guest post outlining how you do them? Or perhaps you could post it on your website. :)

    Thanks Clara, for a great interview.

  18. Clara, great interview of Laurie! <3 I know what she means about researching stuff. It's all political, it's hard to find out about everyday people, their habits, likes, dislikes, social dysfunctions, fashion for everyday things.

    Thanks for this post, I had fun!

    ♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥

  19. Hi Gayle, Stay tuned. Laurie's writing meditation will be posted this week along with the winner!

    Elizabeth, Thanks for stopping by. It can indeed be difficult to learn about everyday people, but it is so satisfying when we do and so rewarding when we bring the past to life!

  20. I love going to those historical sites (Gettysburg is awesome!) & waiting for the characters to speak. It's great to hear that it works well for Laurie, too.
    Kathy Cannon Wiechman

  21. Kathy, Thanks for stopping By! I agree that it is wonderful to visit the places where our stories take place. It makes it all so much more real, doesn't it?