This month, we talk to author Ellen Klages about her book, Out of Left Field. Ellen shares with us a super fun FULL STORY writing prompt, her tips for research, and how she became an author after many years of dreaming about it.
Want to catch up? Check out last month’s Ink Splat here.
This month’s challenge comes straight from Ellen herself!
This is the best writing exercise I know, and it’s really fun to do as a group activity, out loud or on paper. I first learned it as an improv/theater game. It’s called “The Story Spine,” and it will result in a complete story — beginning, middle, and end — every time. (You may not write great literature, but you will have a story!)
The Story Spine is simply a set of sentence fragments that you fill in details and turn into completed sentences. It starts like this:
Once upon a time…
And every day…
But one day…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And because of that… (continue as many times as you want)
And ever since then…
That, in a nutshell, is everything a good story needs: a platform to start from, a catalyst for change, consequences, (raising the stakes, what happens next), a climax, and a resolution.
We’d love to hear your story! Submit your responses by emailing submit@younginklings and you might be published on our website.
An Interview with Ellen Klages
Out of Left Field includes a lot of historically accurate material, from real-life female baseball players to real places in Berkeley, Katy’s hometown. What does your research process look like? Was it different for Out of Left Field than your other historical fiction novels?
I love research. It’s like a treasure hunt, looking for clues about what happened in the past, following leads and links, and never quite knowing what I’m going to find. I usually start online, with some simple Google and Wikipedia searches, to get a few facts — dates and names and places — settled firmly in place. Then I go looking for details to expand the story and make the characters and places and timelines as accurate and three-dimensional as possible.
I read a lot of books. I buy old magazines and other “period” pieces on eBay, to get a feeling of what that time in the past was like. What did people wear? What was in the news? What foods are advertised? I also travel to the places I’m writing about — if I can — and take lots of pictures with my phone, and lots (and lots and lots) of notes. Not just about what things look like, but using all five of my senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. When I’m back home again, those notes remind me of what it was like to be in that place and help me make it come alive for my readers.
That process is very similar for all three of my historical novels. For each, I’ve ended up with several boxes of material and three or four notebooks crammed with information. Only about five percent of that makes it into the actual book, by the way.
For Out of Left Field, the travel was much easier. I didn’t have to fly to New Mexico, as I did for the first two books. I just got in my car and drove across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley.
Green Glass Sea, the first novel in the series, sparked talk about feminism and girls in STEM fields, while Out of Left Field emphasizes gender equality in sports. What prompted this shift?
In a nutshell, I don’t think it is a shift. All of my books deal with girls who have STEM skills, or perhaps, more accurately, STEAM skills. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). Those all require curiosity, a willingness to explore, to ask questions, to dig a little deeper. No matter what interests you — geometry, architecture, music, baseball, computer coding — learning any skill means practice, dedication, and focus.
A lot of people think that art and science are opposites, but I disagree. They’re two different approaches to figuring out how the world works, asking, “what if,” and then experimenting, following your curiosity, using the tools available to you. Katy’s end goal might be to play sports, to join Little League, but the journey she takes to prove that girls can and do play baseball uses just the sort of skills that are emphasized in elementary school STEM classes.
Knowing what you want, and figuring out how to get there is a pretty neat superpower to have. Using your brain to solve a problem? That’s a skill that I think everyone ought to cultivate, and one for which gender should make no difference at all.
Ellen spoke at length on this topic on Betsy Bird’s Fuse#8 blog for School Library Journal. If you want to hear more on this topic form Ellen, you can read it here.
How did you “get into” baseball? Did you play sports as a kid like Katy, or did you become a fan later?
Definitely later. I was about 35 when I started listening to baseball games on the radio, when I realized that there was drama and tension and an ending, just like a good story.
As a kid, I was not a jock. I was a rambunctious, active kid — running around, climbing trees, riding my bike everywhere, and going swimming, but I was never into organized sports. Maybe a little badminton in the backyard on a summer evening, or dodgeball or foursquare at recess. Later I did canoeing and archery at summer camp. My dad was a big sports fan, though. He watched baseball and football on TV, rooting for the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Cleveland Indians, or the Cincinnati Bengals every weekend, but it seemed boring to me. Maybe because, back then, it was all men. I just didn’t identify.
If I could have watched Toni Stone or Jackie Mitchell or Sophie Kurys on a Saturday afternoon? Who knows? Maybe I would have been a fan years earlier.
You began your writing career with short fiction and novellas. What’s different about writing a longer novel? What do you like about each format?
I think I approach writing a novel in a very similar way to writing a short story. I get an idea, I scribble some notes, I start collecting what seem to be random bits and pieces and factoids, and suddenly a pattern begins to emerge. Once I have a glimmer of an idea of what this one is going to be about, the words begin to come, in a trickle or a torrent.
The biggest difference is time. It takes me anywhere from a week to a couple of months to write a short story, but it takes a year or more to write a novel. Not only is a novel longer, but it has a lot more pieces to fit together. Like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it can take months just to find where the edges are, to begin to see the larger picture that’s slowly forming.
I love short stories for their elegant simplicity, the jewel-like attention to detail. I love novels, too. They are a bigger canvas, allowing me to explore a lot of different ideas and braid them into one narrative.
One big difference is that, when I’ve written a novel, at the end of the process, I have a physical object to hold in my hand, to give to friends (or strangers). “Look, this is my new book!” Short stories are more ephemeral.
If you could tell your younger writing-self something, what would it be?
Never give up.
As a kid, I was always good at writing and English class and assumed that I would grow up to be a writer. I wrote a novel when I was 14. (I still have it; no one else will ever, ever see it.) I took creative writing classes in high school and college, but when I graduated, I had no idea what the next step was. I sent out one or two short stories, and when they were rejected, I decided that I wasn’t really very good, and I stopped writing.
I kept a journal that I wrote in once or twice a year, on average, and had a lot of jobs that involved words and sentences — proofreader, editor, writing captions for photographs and alphabetizing lists of donors for the museum I worked for. Once in a while, late at night, I sometimes scribbled a few lines that might have turned into a story, if I’d ever kept going and finished it.
But I didn’t.
Then I met a friend who was a real, published writer. And she introduced me to her friends, most of whom were also real, published writers. I felt like I had finally found the people I belonged with, but I also felt like a fraud. They were actually doing what I thought I would grow up to do.
And I wasn’t.
One day I said that to my friend, and she just looked at me. She frowned, then put her hands on her hips and said, “Well, then. Write something.”
It was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me.
I was 44-years-old when my first short story was published. In the twenty years since then, I have written five novels (three for kids, two for adults) and about two dozen short stories. My fiction has been nominated for lots of awards and even won a few of them.
The secret is what the brilliant author Jane Yolen calls B.I.C., which stands for “butt in chair.” You have to sit down and do the work. And that’s harder than it sounds, because some days, the work just isn’t very good. First drafts always suck, no matter how skilled you are, no matter how long you’ve been doing this craft. B.I.C. You have to keep trying. There will, sooner or later, come a moment when I watch myself write something that makes the hair stand up on my arms, makes my eyes sting with an unexpected truth, and the words flow and sing. There’s no better feeling.
Writing is an act of courage. Telling your own truth, even to yourself, can be terrifying — and wonderful. But know this: you are a writer if you are writing.
And I’d like my past self to know that, to embrace it, and to know that, for me, it all worked out exactly as planned. It just took 25 years longer than I’d thought.
Society of Young Inklings News
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A special thanks to Ellen Klages for sharing with us! You can learn more about Ellen at her website. Click through to order a copy of Out of Left Field from Kristin’s favorite bookstore, Book Passage in the Bay Area.
Ellen Klages is the author of three novels about the Gordon family: The Green Glass Sea, which won the Scott O’Dell and New Mexico Book Awards; White Sands, Red Menace, which won the California and New Mexico Book Award; and Out of Left Field, published in 2018. Previously, she was a staff writer at the Exploratorium museum, where she coauthored three books of hands-on science experiments for children and their families to do together: The Science Explorer; The Science Explorer Out and About; and The Brain Explorer. She also writes award-winning science fiction and fantasy for adult readers. She lives in a small house in San Francisco full of odd, interesting objects.