Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Discovering America's Past through Historical Fiction

Author Elizabeth Winthrop

Our first featured guest in the Historical Fiction Series that will be running for the next eight weeks, is Elizabeth Winthrop, a veteran author with over fifty works of fiction! 

I first met Elizabeth when we were both presenters at the Hodge-Podge Conference in Albany, New York a number of years ago now. I decided to sit in on her presentation and was delighted and enthralled by her stories of childhood. For me, Elizabeth's life was exactly what I had imagined, as a young reader, an author's life should be. I was charmed by her storybook world, and I'm pleased to be sharing her life and work with all of you!

Dear Readers, Please welcome award winning author Elizabeth Winthrop and her featured book, Counting on Grace!  

Interview with Author Elizabeth Winthrop

What or whom were the early influences that inspired you to become a writer?

My father was a journalist who worked at home.  Every day, when I opened the kitchen door, fresh off the bus from school, the first sound I heard was the banging of his old Underwood typewriter keys.  He had a sign on his door which read, PLEASE DON'T KNOCK UNLESS YOU'RE BLEEDING.  This was to keep me and my five brothers out of his hair.  That was my earliest influence... to have a working writer for a father who was self-disciplined and who loved what he did.

My grandmother also encouraged me to write, in contrast to the dour nuns at school who taught me that grammar should be more important than the love of reading or the musical poetry of language.  I had enough influences at home to counter those dictums, thank heavens.

When did you first know that you wanted to write children's books? 
My senior year in college.  I went to Sarah Lawrence where I was allowed to major in writing starting in  freshman year.  I studied with the likes of Grace Paley, E.L. Doctorow and Jane Cooper.  I wrote a large pile of short stories, mostly about experiences I knew nothing about.   Jane wisely pointed this out to me. She noticed that the children in my stories rang very true and steered me in that direction.  When I graduated from college, I worked as an editorial assistant in the Harper and Row Childrens Book department under the legendary Ursula Nordstrom.  From then on, my fate was sealed. My first boss, Nina Ignatowicz, became my editor.

Do you have a favorite book from childhood?


Tell us a little about your writing process.

Character and setting are both crucial to my fiction.  If I don't feel I know a character well enough, then I often write a diary in her voice to dig deeper into what makes her tick.  Or him.   And I need to know where that person lives.  In Counting on Grace, I deliberately picked a mill near where I live in the summer so that I could walk in Grace's footsteps as often as I needed to.  In The Castle in the Attic,  the attic itself is the one in my grandmother's house in Connecticut where I spent many childhood hours.  

Do you write for other audiences?

Yes, I've published two novels for adults, In My Mother's House  and Island Justice.  And I am currently at work on a personal history, the story of my parents' love affair in London during World War II.

Is it difficult to switch back and forth between writing for children and writing for adults?

It's a matter of voice.  I hear a different voice in my head when I'm writing for adults and when I'm writing for children.  And point of view.  In a children's book, you stay very tightly in the protagonist's head.  It keeps you from getting preachy and moralizing.

I'm glad that I can switch back and forth.  When I've been working on a novel for two years, I like being able to write a picture book for young children that might be finished in a week or sometimes, rarely in a couple of days.  Picture books bring me back to language and poetry, the short novels for children force me to focus on plot.  All of these tools are of course, vital when I work on fiction for adults.  It's all writing.  Librarians and booksellers need to slot the books into different age groups so they know where to shelve the books.  I don't.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Read, read, read.  And designate a time in each day when you are nothing but a writer.  Turn off all the gadgets that so easily distract us these days and sink into your writing self.  There's no other way that I know of to keep the inner stream flowing. Honor that writer within you with uninterrupted time and with a place, even if it's the corner of the kitchen or a table in a local coffee shop.

ELIZABETH WINTHROP is the author of over fifty works of fiction for all ages. Her most recent historical novel, COUNTING ON GRACE was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by the American Library Association, the National Council of Social Studies, the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council and was nominated for state book awards in Vermont, Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas, Missouri, Hawaii and Arizona.

Ms. Winthrop is the daughter of the late Stewart Alsop, the political journalist.  She divides her time between New York City and the Berkshires. She is currently at work on a memoir. Learn more about the author here: www.elizabethwinthrop.com

The featured selection for this series, "Discovering America's Past" is Ms. Winthrop's most recent historical work of fiction, Counting on Grace. A teaching guide for the book is available on her web-site: www.elizabethwinthrop.com [Find by clicking on TEACHERS on the menu bar] Read below for what reviewer's say about this important book!

Counting on Grace 
To purchase:  http://amzn.to/eGYzzZ 

"Winthrop's compelling story vividly captures the mill experience.  Much information on early photography and the workings of the textile mills is conveyed, and history and fiction are woven seamlessly together in this beautifully written novel. Readers won't soon forget Grace." -Starred Review, School Library Journal
"The most compelling thread of the novel chronicles the mounting tension between Grace and her demanding mother who dominates the other workers. This enlightening novel explores the perils of mill work for children and adults alike.  Readers will cheer the feisty heroine when Grace uses her smarts to triumph."      -Publishers Weekly


*ALA Notable Book
*Notable Trade Book in Social Studies
*IRA-CBC Children's Choice Selection
*NCTE Notable Book for a Global Society
*Jane Addams Peace Prize Honor Book et al

Elizabeth has generously donated an autographed hardcover copy of Counting on Grace. As always, for a chance to win, all you have to do is stop by and leave a comment on this post and/or the follow-up post next week when Elizabeth will share the story behind the book and insights into the research process involved in uncovering Grace's story.  The winner will be chosen by random.org on Valentine's Day! 


  1. I love Elizabeth Winthrop and so I was fascinated to learn more about how she came to be a writer here. Illuminating and inspiring!!

  2. Fantastic interview, Clara. So inspiring. I thought it was interesting how Elizabeth can switch from adult to children's books. "It's all about the voice." Very insightful.

    And Go Historical Fiction!! Gotta love it!

  3. Great idea, Clara. I love historical fiction. In fact, one of my first novels takes place during the Revolutionary War. If I had to pick, I'd say that period is my favorite.

    Will be sure to check in often during these next two months.

    Cheers. :)

  4. Thanks, Claudia, Jennifer, and Gayle for dropping by!

    Claudia--we know that Elizabeth is also a wonderful poet!
    Jennifer--I agree! "GO Historical Fiction!"
    Gayle--Thanks for checking often!

  5. I believe I have 2 favorite times in history. Viet Nam War and WWII. I was alive and conscious during the late 60’s and for all errors in judgment we made, we were not apathetic and we were not afraid to get involved and say what we believed.
    WWII was a time of great patriotism and there seemed to be a unity of the people; perhaps because we needed each other during the Depression. I also think there was great optimism on the heels of the greatest catastrophe ever; the Holocaust. Somehow, even though the world was reeling from such barbaric and gruesome horror, there was hope in man and in the goodness of man. I am inspired by that.
    . . .Barbara Thorbjornsson

  6. Clara, I love this historical fiction series idea! I also like what Elizabeth said about voice being the difference between adult and children's writing. I guess my favorite time period is the US Civil War. That's when my book is set. :)


  7. Thanks for dropping by, Margo. I know that you'll love, Counting on Grace--she's the sort of strong heroine we want for our girls! You'll have to keep me posted on your book, too!

  8. Clara,
    I love Historical fiction! And I love when authors use picture book form because it gives teachers and librarians a great way to show how historical times develop.

  9. Hi Susan, Great to hear from you! Be sure to check out Elizabeth's web-site and amazon.com pages for more about her picture books.

  10. Clara,
    Historical fiction seems to have a wide audience. I love the grandma's attic reference.

  11. I love these interviews. This sounds like an amazing book and it was so interesting to see what inspires and motivates Elizabeth!

  12. Hi Linda, Thanks for stopping by. We do love attics, don't we? They MUST have secrets and mysteries in them!

  13. Thanks, Rebecca T.! I'm glad that you enjoy the interviews! More to come . . .

  14. Hooray for historical fiction and the editors who publish it! Thank you for the excellent interview with Elizabeth Winthrop. Clara, I know we share a love for medieval times.

  15. Hi Clara! It has been a while since I have left a note. I love historical fiction for children and adults, alike. I am writing a story about a modern-day young teen and her experiences with exploring the historical aspects of her NJ hometown. It all focuses on the Rev War and it is so much fun for me to research. And challenging. Capturing the voice of a young teen in our day, and then trying to do the same for a character in the past is daunting. I really appreciate Elizabeth's suggestions for writers! Read, read, read, indeed, and to write every day is vital. I am trying to do that, even if it is a letter, an entry in my journal, and of course, the story...hope all is well with you!

  16. Hi Clara,
    What a wonderful idea to feature historical fiction!
    Great interview questions--and answers. I love the title "Counting on Grace" and the glimpse into Elizabeth's early writing influences, although I have to say the nuns who taught me had the opposite effect. While they stressed the importance of grammar, they also encouraged my love for reading and writing.
    My favorite historical periods? Probably the early 1900s and World War II.
    Donna Volkenannt

  17. Marileta, We do, indeed, share a love of medieval times. I have photos to share--remember?

  18. Hi Kate, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It's so nice to hear that Elizabeth's words were inspiring. So delighted that you're moving along with your book project. Life is good!

  19. Hi Donna (irishoma), Thanks for stopping by to share. I also love the early 20th-century and the Edwardian age, but also Victorian times--no surprise there!

  20. Well-done interview. I love this new historical fiction series you're doing, Clara, and am a growing fan of the genre. A certain river rafting trip kind of turned me on to it. :) I enjoyed reading about Elizabeth's process of picking a nearby mill where she could walk in her character's footsteps whenever she liked.

    During the SCBWI conference this past weekend, I heard from two speakers that the historical fiction market is picking up. Yay!

  21. I love stories that talk about little girls or is that what I see on the cover?

  22. Clara,
    How neat! What an inspiring interview and neat topic. Historical fiction is definitely one of my favorite genres. And Elizabeth's advice for aspiring authors is just what I needed to hear!

  23. This book looks great! It would be so cool to have a signed copy! I hope you pick me!

  24. Hi Clara, I enjoyed this interview very much. It was inspiring! I am looking forward to reading Counting on Grace.
    Lorrie Ziemba

  25. Hi Toby, Thanks for the update from the SCBWI NY Conference! Yahoo! Stay tuned, 'cause you'll really love Elizabeth's next post!

  26. Mallory, Thanks for stopping by!

    Margaret, I'm going to be doing a workshop Mar/Apr at the library. Hope you can make it!

    DrDavey, Welcome, newcomer! Thanks for dropping by.

    Lorrie, Glad you enjoyed the interview. You'll love the next post about the author's research!

  27. Thank you for the interview. I just love historical fiction. I like to be transformed back in time. If you get the chance, come over and read my Writing Wednesday post and help me get it right.

  28. Hi Janet, Thanks so much for stopping by! I'll pop over to your Writing Wednesday later on--as long as the power doesn't go out. Major ice storm here! Never fear, I'll be there soon!

  29. Thanks so much for the riveting interview. I love historical fiction, particularly for and about children and Elizabeth's books help to satisfy my insatiable appetite. (And don't worry about the weather...if the power goes out use the time to imagine...you can write it all down later!)

  30. What a great interview! Thanks so much for sharing this and introducing me to Elizabeth's writing.

  31. I don't know that I have a favorite era. Pioneers in the 1800's? The 50's? But I do enjoy historical fiction.

    Great idea for a blog event!

  32. Hi Betty,

    Thanks for dropping by. We didn't lose power, but your comment reminded me of how much my grandmother loved the old kerosene lamps and preferred the soft glow of their light cast across her table to the harsh light of electric bulbs.

  33. Hi Karen, Glad you liked the interview! I'm sure the pea would love some of Elizabeth's picture books.

    Hi Christie, I agree that the pioneer era and The Little House books are hard to resist. Thanks for dropping by!

  34. That book sounds most interesting! I've been wanting to read a book by Miss Winthrop and now I will have to peruse my library shelves. Thanks for the interview! :)

  35. Thanks for stopping by, Naomi Ruth! Stay tuned for the next installment coming up next week . . .

  36. I see there are a lot of people who share my passion for Historical Fiction. Thanks Clara for sharing this. This book brought to mind a book from the Dear Canada diary series called Days of Toil and Tears - The Child Labour Diary of Flora Rutherford, Almonte, Ontario 1887 by Sarah Ellis. Now I'm going online to reserve some of Elizabeth's books.

  37. This was wonderful. Thanks, Clara and Elizabeth!

  38. Anne, Honored to have you stop by! Thanks!

  39. This was wonderful. Thanks, Clara and Elizabeth!
    Honored to have you stop by! Thanks!
    I see there are a lot of people who share my passion for Historical Fiction. Thanks Clara for sharing this.